In some ways, the continuing row over his call for the complete destruction of Israel must baffle Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. All he did, after all, was to turn up at a routine anti-Zionist event and repeat the standard line—laid down by the Ayatollah Khomeini and thus considered by some to be beyond repeal—that the state of Israel is illegitimate and must be obliterated. There's nothing new in that. In the early '90s, I can remember seeing, in the areas around Baalbek in Lebanon that were dominated by Hezbollah and Amal, large posters of the by-then-late Khomeini embellished (in English) with the slogan, "Israel Must Be Completely Destroyed!" And I have twice been to Friday prayers in Tehran itself, addressed by leading mullahs and by former President Rafsanjani, where the more terse version (Marg bar Esrail—"Death to Israel") is chanted as a matter of routine; sometimes as an applause line to an especially deft clerical thrust.
No, what worries me more about Ahmadinejad is his devout belief in the return of the "occulted" or 12th imam and his related belief that, when he himself spoke recently at the United Nations, the whole scene was suffused with a sublime green light that held all his audience in a state of suspended animation. This uncultured jerk is, of course, only a puppet figure with no real power, but this choice of puppet by the theocracy is unsettling in itself. So is Iran's complete lack of embarrassment at being caught, time and again, with nuclear enrichment facilities that have never been declared to the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
However, words and details and nuances do matter in all this, so I was not surprised to see professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan denying that Ahmadinejad, or indeed Khomeini, had ever made this call for the removal of Israel from the map. Cole is a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community. At one point, there was a danger that he would become a go-to person for quotes in New York Times articles (a sort of Shiite fellow-traveling version of Norman Ornstein, if such an alarming phenomenon can be imagined), but this crisis appears to have passed.
Cole continues to present himself as an expert on Shiism and on the Persian, Arabic, and Urdu tongues. Let us see how his claim vindicates itself in practice. Here is what he wrote on the "Gulf 2000" e-mail chat-list on April 22:
It bears repeating as long as the accusation is made. Ahmadinejad did not "threaten" to "wipe Israel off the map." I'm not sure there is even such an idiom in Persian. He quoted Khomeini to the effect that "the Occupation regime must end" (ehtelal bayad az bayn berad). And, no, it is not the same thing. It is about what sort of regime people live under, not whether they exist at all. Ariel Sharon, after all, made the Occupation regime in Gaza end.
There are two separate but related matters here. For a start, let us look at the now-famous speech that Ahmadinejad actually gave at the Interior Ministry on Oct. 26, 2005. (I am using the translation made by Nazila Fathi of the New York Times Tehran bureau, whose Persian is probably the equal of Professor Cole's.) The relevant portions read:
Our dear Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine. … Our dear Imam targeted the heart of the world oppressor in his struggle, meaning the occupying regime. … For over fifty years the world oppressor tried to give legitimacy to the occupying regime, and it has taken measures in this direction to stabilize it.
Ahmadinejad then denounced the recent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over Gaza as a sellout and added, "If we get through this brief period successfully, the path of eliminating the occupying regime will be easy and down-hill."
Not even Professor Cole will dispute that, in the above passages, the term "occupying regime" means Israel and the term "world oppressor" stands for the United States. (The title of the conference, incidentally, was The World Without Zionism.) In fact, Khomeini's injunctions are referred to twice. Quite possibly, "wiped off the map" is slightly too free a translation of what he originally said, and what it is mandatory for his followers to repeat. So, I give it below, in Persian and in English, and let you be the judge:
Esrail ghiyam-e mossalahaane bar zed-e mamaalek-e eslami nemoodeh ast va bar doval va mamaalek-eeslami ghal-o-gham aan lazem ast.
My source here is none other than a volume published by the Institute for Imam Khomeini. Here is the translation:
Israel has declared armed struggle against Islamic countries and its destruction is a must for all governments and nations of Islam.
This is especially important, and is also the reason for the wide currency given to the statement: It is making something into a matter of religious duty. The term "ghal-o-gham" is an extremely strong and unambivalent one, of which a close equivalent rendering would be "annihilate."
Professor Cole has completely missed or omitted the first reference in last October's speech, skipped to the second one, and flatly misunderstood the third. (The fourth one, about "eliminating the occupying regime," I would say speaks for itself.) He evidently thinks that by "occupation," Khomeini and Ahmadinejad were referring to the Israeli seizure of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. But if this were true, it would not have been going on for "more than fifty years" now, would it? The 50th anniversary of 1967 falls in 2017, which is a while off. What could be clearer than that "occupation regime" is a direct reference to Israel itself?
One might have thought that, if the map-wiping charge were to have been inaccurate or unfair, Ahmadinejad would have denied it. But he presumably knew what he had said and had meant to say. In any case, he has an apologist to do what he does not choose to do for himself. But this apologist, who affects such expertise in Persian, cannot decipher the plain meaning of a celebrated statement and is, furthermore, in need of a remedial course in English.