We're All Persian Grammarians Now

30th May 2012

As the Iranian mullahs’ nuclearization drive reaches its end goal, Western policymakers face a narrowing range of bad options. There are difficult choices ahead, and those choices are made all the more difficult by Tehran’s long track record of vicious rhetoric directed at Israel—the most notorious example of which was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call in 2005 for Israel to be “wiped off the map” (as the phrase has frequently been translated in the English-speaking world). It’s no wonder that some in the West, faced with such venom, seek palliatives.

How do you palliate a call for another country’s destruction? Simple: You quibble over minor points of grammar. Instant experts in Persian grammar have been doing this to Ahmadinejad’s speech ever since he delivered it in 2005 (at a conference ominously titled “The World Without Zionism”). The latest round of grammatical henpecking came a short while ago, when Israeli intelligence minister Dan Meridor told Al-Jazeera English that Ahmadinejad’s 2005 utterance did not signal an immediate intent to nuke Israel. In response, Robert Mackey took to his New York Times blog to underline the apparent concession:

A senior Israeli official has acknowledged that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never actually said that Israel ‘must be wiped off the map.’ . . . Although there is general agreement . . . that Mr. Ahmadinejad did not commit his country to the project of destroying the state of Israel in [his] 2005 speech, the phrase that was wrongly attributed to him then remains so firmly rooted in the popular imagination that it is frequently used as evidence of Iran’s genocidal intentions.

Citing the Iranian-American pundit and one-time Ahmadinejad interpreter Hooman Majd, Mackey sought to frame Ahmadinejad’s remark as a dire prediction rather than a threat, noting that “in the original speech, the Iranian president had argued that, while the end of Israeli rule over Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, might seem impossible to imagine, the end of the Shah’s rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union both proved that change on that scale was possible.” Viewed in this light, Ahmadinejad’s remarks don’t sound all that different from those of any other proponent of a two-state solution that includes ending Jewish sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem.

Mackey’s foray into Persian grammar fits into a heated and long-running debate originally sparked in part by the New York Times’s own reporting on the infamous speech. In that piece, the Times’s Tehran correspondent, Nazila Fathi, quoted Ahmadinejad as follows: “As the imam [Khomeini] said, Israel must be wiped off the map.” A day later, the Middle East Media Research Institute provided a more accurate translation of the quote: “Imam [Khomeini] said: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’ This sentence is very wise.”

Either translation, of course, should be cause for alarm. Whether Israel must be “wiped off the map” or from “the pages of history,” the rhetoric evinces an unmistakably eliminationist bent. Yet because Fathi’s initial, inexact translation (“wiped off the map”) seemed to carry connotations of the horrors of nuclear warfare—and because that phrase has been repeated by journalists and politicians countless times since 2005—some have seized on the mistranslation as a way of downplaying what was otherwise clearly a call for the destruction of the Jewish state. It was as if, by repeatedly pointing out the error, supporters of engagement could set a lower bar for the benevolence of the Iranian regime’s intentions toward Israel: If Ahmadinejad had not really called for Israel to be “wiped off” the map, they seemed to say, then it followed that concerns over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program were exaggerated or unserious.

“I’m not sure there is even such an idiom in Persian,” claimed University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole. “In Farsi, it means not that Israel should be eliminated,” explained author Reza Aslan, “but that the existing political borders should literally be wiped from a literal map and replaced with those of historic Palestine.”

In fact, the pivotal term in Ahmadinejad’s speech was baayad, an injunctive verb meaning “must.” Persian speakers do not use baayad to make passive predictions; the word is used to command action. But the arguments over grammar are just a way of avoiding the central fact: The Iranian regime has repeatedly acted on its murderous rhetoric about Israelis and Jews. Tehran remains the largest sponsor of Hizballah and Hamas, two terrorist groups constitutionally committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews around the world. In 1992, Hizballah bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people; two years later, the city’s Jewish Community Center was rocked by another Hizballah bomb that took the lives of 87. In 2009, one of the authors of this piece attended a Hizballah rally in Beirut that featured a giant poster depicting a nuclear mushroom cloud composed of Arabic letters, translated on the side as, “Oh Zionists, if you want this type of war, SO BE IT.” The Khomeini quotation that Ahmadinejad considered “very wise” has also appeared on banners adorning Iranian missiles during military parades.

Extinguishing the Jewish state has been a central tenet of the Iranian regime since its founding by the Ayatollah Khomeini more than three decades ago. “Ever since coming to this revolution,” Khomeini declared in a televised speech not long before his death, “one of our major points has been that Israel must be destroyed.” Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been equally clear. Last February, he described Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that must be “cut.” Iran’s military leaders frequently echo such calls. “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel,” the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, less than two weeks ago. And the unsubtle cry of “Death to Israel” is a regular incantation at Friday prayers. These are not empty threats or nebulous hopes, but murderous exhortations backed up by concrete policies.

There is something deeply pernicious about the attempt to whitewash the grossly anti-Semitic ideology of Iran’s leadership—as if nitpicking over repeated mistranslations of one statement could exonerate Iran when nearly two dozen other choice utterances refer to Israel in eliminationist terms. Reasonable people can disagree about what should be done with respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but not about the overt hostility embedded in the Iranian leadership’s rhetoric on Israel.

co-authored with Sohrab Ahmari

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