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Iranian leader did NOT call for Israel to be 'wiped off the map' or anything like it

The rumour that Iran's leader threatened to "wipe Israel off the map" originated directly from officials in the US and Israel.

The very first news articles in which the the "wiped off the map" claim ever appeared cite responses from western officials. This is because western officials were in fact the source of the mistranslation. The speech by Ahmadinejad was not heard of in the west, and was certainly not headline news, until after western officials presented it to the media with their own false, headline-making interpretation, and with their own spin.

The news first appeared in the New York Times, and subsequently by Fox News under the headline "Iranian leader: Israel will be destroyed". The interpretation took on a life of its own. As usual, the lie makes much more sensational headlines than the truth, and the corporate media and Zionist lobby quickly adopted the story. It has been variously re-interpreted with ever more terrifying meanings; for instance a "threat" to "exterminate millions of Jews in Israel" to quote a jewish columnist in Britain speaking on TV in 2007. The false quote has been repeated so often, it has become common knowledge; an established fact in the minds of the public.

To "wipe something off the map" is in fact an English idiom, an English saying. There is no Farsi equivalent, and the two languages are so different that there is no single correct translation, but there is no way that the words could be translated as "wipe Israel off the map". This is not a translation; it is an interpretation, and a wildly inaccurate one.

The map of Palestine was effectively redrawn on May 14, 1948, when the state of "Israel" was declared. The UN formally acknowledges that the occupation of parts of Palestine by Israel is "illegal".

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Lost in translation

Experts confirm that Iran's president did not call for Israel to be 'wiped off the map'. Reports that he did serve to strengthen western hawks.

My recent comment piece explaining how Iran's president was badly misquoted when he allegedly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" has caused a welcome little storm. The phrase has been seized on by western and Israeli hawks to re-double suspicions of the Iranian government's intentions, so it is important to get the truth of what he really said.

I took my translation - "the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time" - from the indefatigable Professor Juan Cole's website where it has been for several weeks.

[The most accurate English translation of the original Farsi is "the occupation of Palestine should dissapear from the pages of history". Jerusalem is in fact part of an area which has been known as Palestine for about two-thousand years. The state known as "Israel", which now illegally occupies part of Palestine, including part of Jerusalem, was created artificially by the British government after the second world war as a new homeland for Jews as a reward for their collaboration against Germany during the war. The native population were forced out of their homes, and the state of Israel is still expanding, using bulldozers, tanks and barriers to continue the process.]

But it seems to be mainly thanks to the Guardian giving it prominence that the New York Times, which was one of the first papers to misquote Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came out on Sunday with a defensive piece attempting to justify its reporter's original "wiped off the map" translation. (By the way, for Farsi speakers the original version is available here.)

Joining the "off the map" crowd is David Aaronovitch, a columnist on the Times (of London), who attacked my analysis yesterday. I won't waste time on him since his knowledge of Farsi is as minimal as that of his Latin. The poor man thinks the plural of casus belli is casi belli, unaware that casus is fourth declension with the plural casus (long u).

The New York Times's Ethan Bronner and Nazila Fathi, one of the paper's Tehran staff, make a more serious case. They consulted several sources in Tehran. "Sohrab Mahdavi, one of Iran's most prominent translators, and Siamak Namazi, managing director of a Tehran consulting firm, who is bilingual, both say 'wipe off' or 'wipe away' is more accurate than 'vanish' because the Persian verb is active and transitive," Bronner writes.

The New York Times goes on: "The second translation issue concerns the word 'map'. Khomeini's words were abstract: 'Sahneh roozgar.' Sahneh means scene or stage, and roozgar means time. The phrase was widely interpreted as 'map', and for years, no one objected. In October, when Mr Ahmadinejad quoted Khomeini, he actually misquoted him, saying not 'Sahneh roozgar' but 'Safheh roozgar', meaning pages of time or history. No one noticed the change, and news agencies used the word 'map' again."

This, in my view, is the crucial point and I'm glad the NYT accepts that the word "map" was not used by Ahmadinejad. (By the way, the Wikipedia entry on the controversy gets the NYT wrong, claiming falsely that Ethan Bronner "concluded that Ahmadinejad had in fact said that Israel was to be wiped off the map".)

If the Iranian president made a mistake and used "safheh" rather than "sahneh", that is of little moment. A native English speaker could equally confuse "stage of history" with "page of history". The significant issue is that both phrases refer to time rather than place. As I wrote in my original post, the Iranian president was expressing a vague wish for the future. He was not threatening an Iranian-initiated war to remove Israeli control over Jerusalem.

Two other well-established translation sources confirm that Ahmadinejad was referring to time, not place. The version of the October 26 2005 speech put out by the Middle East Media Research Institute, based on the Farsi text released by the official Iranian Students News Agency, says: "This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history." (NB: not "wiped". I accept that "eliminated" is almost the same, indeed some might argue it is more sinister than "wiped", though it is a bit more of a mouthful if you are trying to find four catchy and easily memorable words with which to incite anger against Iran.)

MEMRI (its text of the speech is available here) is headed by a former Isareli military intelligence officer and has sometimes been attacked for alleged distortion of Farsi and Arabic quotations for the benefit of Israeli foreign policy. On this occasion they supported the doveish view of what Ahmadinejad said.

Finally we come to the BBC monitoring service which every day puts out hundreds of highly respected English translations of broadcasts from all round the globe to their subscribers - mainly governments, intelligence services, thinktanks and other specialists. I approached them this week about the controversy and a spokesperson for the monitoring service's marketing unit, who did not want his name used, told me their original version of the Ahmadinejad quote was "eliminated from the map of the world".

As a result of my inquiry and the controversy generated, they had gone back to the native Farsi-speakers who had translated the speech from a voice recording made available by Iranian TV on October 29 2005. Here is what the spokesman told me about the "off the map" section: "The monitor has checked again. It's a difficult expression to translate. They're under time pressure to produce a translation quickly and they were searching for the right phrase. With more time to reflect they would say the translation should be "eliminated from the page of history".

Would the BBC put out a correction, given that the issue had become so controversial, I asked. "It would be a long time after the original version", came the reply. I interpret that as "probably not", but let's see.

Finally, I approached Iradj Bagherzade, the Iranian-born founder and chairman of the renowned publishing house, IB Tauris. He thought hard about the word "roozgar". "History" was not the right word, he said, but he could not decide between several better alternatives "this day and age", "these times", "our times", "time".

So there we have it. Starting with Juan Cole, and going via the New York Times' experts through MEMRI to the BBC's monitors, the consensus is that Ahmadinejad did not talk about any maps. He was, as I insisted in my original piece, offering a vague wish for the future.

A very last point. The fact that he compared his desired option - the elimination of "the regime occupying Jerusalem" - with the fall of the Shah's regime in Iran makes it crystal clear that he is talking about regime change, not the end of Israel. As a schoolboy opponent of the Shah in the 1970's he surely did not favour Iran's removal from the page of time. He just wanted the Shah out.

The same with regard to Israel. The Iranian president is undeniably an opponent of Zionism or, if you prefer the phrase, the Zionist regime. But so are substantial numbers of Israeli citizens, Jews as well as Arabs. The anti-Zionist and non-Zionist traditions in Israel are not insignificant. So we should not demonise Ahmadinejad on those grounds alone.

Does this quibbling over phrases matter? Yes, of course. Within days of the Ahmadinejad speech the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was calling for Iran to be expelled from the United Nations. Other foreign leaders have quoted the map phrase. The United States is piling pressure on its allies to be tough with Iran.

Let me give the last word to Juan Cole, with whom I began. "I am entirely aware that Ahmadinejad is hostile to Israel. The question is whether his intentions and capabilities would lead to a military attack, and whether therefore pre-emptive warfare is prescribed. I am saying no, and the boring philology is part of the reason for the no."


The Guardian, "Lost in translation", 14 June 2006.


New York Times, "Iran's President Says Israel Must Be 'Wiped Off the Map'", 26 October 2007.
    [This article in the New York Times newspaper on 26 October is the earliest and first time that the the "wiped off the map" claim was published.]
    TEHRAN, Oct. 26 - Iran's new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told a group of students at an anti-Israel event today that Israel must be "wiped off the map" and that attacks by Palestinians will destroy it, the Iranian student news agency, ISNA, reported. [The ISNA report was in Farsi, not English, and the quote is an interpretation of a translation which has been openly exposed as false.]
    The remarks brought swift reaction in Israel and in some Western capitals.
    [You will notice that, even in the very first news articles in which the the "wiped off the map" claim ever appeared, the responses of western officials are already available. This is because western officials were in fact the source of the first ever English translation of the quote in question. The speech by Ahmadinejad was not heard of in the west, and was certainly not headline news, until after western officials presented it to the media with their own false, sensationalist, headline-making interpretation, and their own spin. Claims about what Ahmadinejad said, made by western officials, and their opinions on these claims, are blatant, transparent Zionist and pre-war propaganda.]
    Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, "speak openly about destroying the Jewish state ... and it appears the problem with these extremists is that they followed through on their violent declarations with violent actions," The Associated Press reported.
    "I think it reconfirms what we have been saying about the regime in Iran," the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, told reporters in Washington. according to The A.P. "It underscores the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear intentions."

Fox News, "Iranian Leader: Israel Will Be Destroyed", 26 October 2006.
    TEHRAN, Iran [Associated Press]   President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) declared Wednesday that Israel (search) is a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map" fiery words that Washington said underscores its concern over Iran's nuclear program.
    Ahmadinejad's speech to thousands of students at a "World without Zionism" conference set a hard-line foreign policy course sharply at odds with that of his moderate predecessor, echoing the sentiments of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution.
    The United States said Ahmadinejad's remarks show that Washington's fears about Iran's nuclear program are accurate.
    "I think it reconfirms what we have been saying about the regime in Iran," White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) told reporters in Washington. "It underscores the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear intentions."


The Guardian, "If Iran is ready to talk, the US must do so unconditionally", 2 June 2006.
    It is absurd to demand that Tehran should have made concessions before sitting down with the Americans
    It is 50 years since the greatest misquotation of the cold war. At a Kremlin reception for western ambassadors in 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced: "We will bury you." Those four words were seized on by American hawks as proof of aggressive Soviet intent.
    Doves who pointed out that the full quotation gave a less threatening message were drowned out. Khrushchev had actually said: "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you." It was a harmless boast about socialism's eventual victory in the ideological competition with capitalism. He was not talking about war.
    Now we face a similar propaganda distortion of remarks by Iran's president. Ask anyone in Washington, London or Tel Aviv if they can cite any phrase uttered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the chances are high they will say he wants Israel "wiped off the map".
    Again it is four short words, though the distortion is worse than in the Khrushchev case. The remarks are not out of context. They are wrong, pure and simple. Ahmadinejad never said them. Farsi speakers have pointed out that he was mistranslated. The Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran's first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that "this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time" just as the Shah's regime in Iran had vanished.
    He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The "page of time" phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon. There was no implication that either Khomeini, when he first made the statement, or Ahmadinejad, in repeating it, felt it was imminent, or that Iran would be involved in bringing it about.
    But the propaganda damage was done, and western hawks bracket the Iranian president with Hitler as though he wants to exterminate Jews. At the recent annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobby group, huge screens switched between pictures of Ahmadinejad making the false "wiping off the map" statement and a ranting Hitler.
    Misquoting Ahmadinejad is worse than taking Khrushchev out of context for a second reason. Although the Soviet Union had a collective leadership, the pudgy Russian was the undoubted No 1 figure, particularly on foreign policy. The Iranian president is not.
    His predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was seen in the west as a moderate reformer, and during his eight years in office western politicians regularly lamented the fact that he was not Iran's top decision-maker. Ultimate power lay with the conservative unelected supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet now that Ahmadinejad is president, western hawks behave as though he is in charge, when in fact nothing has changed. Ahmadinejad is not the only important voice in Tehran. Indeed Khamenei was quick to try to adjust the misperceptions of Ahmadinejad's comments. A few days after the president made them, Khamenei said Iran "will not commit aggression against any nation".


In reality, the democratically elected Iranian leader has never said anything of the sort. This is a deliberate mistranslation, created and perpetuated by politicians and the corporate media for propaganda purposes. What he actually said was that the occupation of Palestine should be "wiped from the page of history". He knew what he was saying, because he was quoting Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989).

The mis-translation first appeared as an anonymous post on an online forum, in which quoted Ahmadinejad as saying "the Palestinians will wipe off this stigma (Israel) from the face of the Islamic world". The translation is wrong, and the word "Israel" was inserted to show that in the poster's opinion the word "stigma" was a concealed reference to Israel. It was picked up by an obscure anti-Muslim web site called "faithfreedom.org" which has a page dedicated to "Testimonies of Those Who Left Islam". Zionist news reporters then asked world leaders for their responses, which were reported as headline news. The falsehood soon became common-knowledge, and to date has never been questioned or corrected by any mass media news outlet. In fact, politicians and the media still refer to it repeatedly, because it suits their agenda.

"The Insider" mailing list article, 22 January 2007.

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Tags: Iran, wipe Israel off the map, translation, propaganda, mistranslation, censorship, DA-Notice, D Notice, , conspiracy theories.

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