“Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map.”
— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, September 21, 2011
“It was only perhaps three weeks ago that the president of Iran once again said that Israel should be eradicated off the face of the Earth. As you recall, it was about in 2005 when he [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] said before that Israel -- he would use a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.”
— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), September 19, 2011
“Outrageous statements by Ahmadinejad, such as a pledge to wipe Israel off the map, made it easier to keep that coalition together. Germany had been considered the weak sister of the group, but after Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel, the historical burden of the Holocaust made it difficult for Germany to appear too sympathetic to Iran.”
— Glenn Kessler (aka The Fact Checker), “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), page 188.
“The Islamic Republic’s proposal to help resolve the Palestinian issue and heal this old wound is a clear and logical initiative based on political concepts accepted by world public opinion, which has already been presented in detail. We do not suggest launching a classic war by the armies of Muslim countries, or throwing immigrant Jews into the sea, or mediation by the UN and other international organizations. We propose holding a referendum with [the participation of] the Palestinian nation. The Palestinian nation, like any other nation, has the right to determine their own destiny and elect the governing system of the country.”
— Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, October 2, 2011
Almost unnoticed, Iran this week joined the United States and Israel as one of the few countries in the world to oppose the statehood bid at the United Nations by the Palestinians. As the Tehran Times noted, the Iranian supreme leader “condemned any measure which would lead to the recognition of the Israeli regime and would ignore the legal right of the Palestinian people to their homeland.”
In other words, Iran continues to oppose the two-state solution. But does this mean that Iran wants to destroy Israel — “wipe it off the map” — as is commonly cited? This is certainly the conventional wisdom, as seen in the statements above. But a colleague at The Washington Post, spotting the Bachmann and Obama statements during the U.N. festivities last month, suggested that this widely cited statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was actually a mistranslation.
The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.
The article sparked outrage around the globe, with then-President George W. Bush and other world leaders condemning Ahmadinejad’s statement. The original New York Times article noted that Ahmadinejad said he was quoting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, but that aspect was largely overlooked.
Then, specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.
Cole said this week that in the 1980s Khomeini gave a speech in which he said in Persian “Een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Quds bayad az sahneh-i ruzgar mahv shaved.” This means, “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the arena of time.” But then anonymous wire service translators rendered Khomeini as saying that Israel “must be wiped off the face of the map,” which Cole and Nourouzi say is inaccurate.
Ahmadinejad slightly misquoted Khomeini, substituting “safheh-i ruzgar,” or “page of time" for "sahneh-i ruzgar" or “arena of time.” But in any case, the old translation was dug up and used again by the Iranian news agency, Cole says. In fact, that’s how it was presented for years on Ahmadinejad’s English-language Web site, as the Times noted in a somewhat defensive article on the translation debate.
But the story doesn’t end there. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that Iranian government entities began to erect billboards and signs with the “wipe off” phrase in English. Joshua Teitelbaum of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs compiled an interesting collection of photographs of these banners, such as one on the building that houses reserve military forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world,” the sign reads in English.
Teitelbaum’s report, while written from a pro-Israel perspective, includes a number of threatening statements about Israel that are similar in tone to Ahmadinejad’s controversial statement.
In 2000, Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”
Sadjadpour, who has closely studied the statements of Khamenei, said that the supreme leader has spoken more on the question of Israel than any other issue, which is remarkable given that Iran shares no border with Israel and that the Jewish state has virtually no impact on the daily lives of Iranians. Sadjadpour said Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’”
Of course, an Israeli might conclude that such an outcome would be the destruction of the Jewish state in any case.
The Pinocchio Test
Some might question why Ahmadinejad’s precise words are important. Clearly, the Iranian government has unrelenting opposition to the state of Israel, so much so that it even rejects Palestinian efforts at statehood if that would result in Israel remaining in the Middle East. Indeed, Tehran has armed and funded Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant groups opposed to Israel. At the same time, the words allegedly uttered by Ahmadinejad have been used to suggest a change toward a more militaristic posture by Iran toward Israel.
In fact, Ahmadinejad is not the power broker in Iran; it is Khamenei. Khamenei, in fact, has been consistent in speaking of his hatred of Israel, but without a military context, as he demonstrated once again this week. Moreover, the fact that Ahmadinejad was merely quoting Khomeini suggests that even less weight should have been given to his words, especially since there is a dispute over the precise meaning in English.
“Wipe off the map,” in other words, has become easy shorthand for expressing revulsion at Iran’s anti-Israeli foreign policy. Certainly attention needs to be focused on that — and Iranian behavior in the region. But we’re going to award a Pinocchio to everyone — including ourselves — who has blithely repeated the phrase without putting it into context.