Over the past several years, Iranian leaders - most prominently, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - have made numerous statements calling for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. Some of these statements have been interpreted by certain journalists and experts on Iran to be simple expressions of dissatisfaction with the Israeli presence in the West Bank or eastern Jerusalem, or with the current Israeli government and its policies.
Juan Cole of the University of Michigan argues that Ahmadinejad was not calling for the destruction of Israel, saying, "Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian." The British Guardian's Jonathan Steele argued that Ahmadinejad was simply remarking that "this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." Steele continues: "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."
Scholars continue to soft-pedal the Iranian President's words. Professor Stephen Walt, who previously served as academic dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and co-authored The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy along with Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, told a Jerusalem audience during a joint appearance in early June 2008, "I don't think he is inciting to genocide," when asked about Ahmadinejad's call to wipe Israel off the map.
In reality, the intent behind Ahmadinejad's language is clear. Those who seek to excuse Iranian leaders should not remain unchallenged when they use the tools of scholarship as a smokescreen to obfuscate these extreme and deliberate calls for the destruction of Israel. Language entails meaning. These statements have been interpreted by leading Iranian blogs and news outlets - some official - to mean the destruction of Israel.
US Congress Debate on Translating Ahmadinejad
Translating Ahmadinejad's statements is not purely an academic matter. When in 2007 the US House of Representatives debated a resolution calling on the UN Security Council to charge Ahmadinejad with violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the United Nations Charter because of his repeated calls for the destruction of Israel (H. Con. Res. 21), the issue of the accuracy of the translation of his remarks came up in the House debate.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) requested that alternative translations of Ahmadinejad's language - like that of South African political scientist Virginia Tilley - be introduced into the Congressional Record. These versions assert the Iranian president was only seeking a change of regime in Israel and not the physical elimination of the country. H. Con. Res. 21 was adopted by a majority of 411 to 2, with Rep. Kucinich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) voting against.
Examining Ahmadinejad's Language
What emerges from a comprehensive analysis of what Ahmadinejad actually said - and how it has been interpreted in Iran - is that the Iranian president was not just calling for "regime change" in Jerusalem, but rather the actual physical destruction of the State of Israel. After all, it is hard to wipe a country off the map without destroying its population as well.
The Iranian government itself reinforced this understanding with its own rendition of his slogans on posters and billboards during official parades. Those who try to make Ahmadinejad's statements excusable by narrowing their meaning to a change of Israel's ruling coalition are misleading their readers. The plain meaning of what Ahmadinejad has declared constitutes a call for genocide - the destruction of the Jewish state and its residents.
A contextual examination of these statements demonstrates beyond a doubt that when Iranian leaders use the euphemism "Zionist regime" or "the Jerusalem-occupying regime," they are most definitely referring to the State of Israel and not to the present regime. Iranian leaders are simply following the time-worn practice in the Arab world of referring to the "Zionist regime" in an attempt to avoid dignifying Israel by recognizing its name.
Iranian leaders are also not talking about a non-directed, natural historical process that will end with Israel's demise. Rather, they are actively advocating Israel's destruction and have made it clear that they have the will and the means to effect it.
Ahmadinejad's "Wipe Israel Off the Map" Speech
In an address to the "World without Zionism" Conference held in Teheran on October 26, 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: "Our dear Imam [Khomeini] ordered that this Jerusalem-occupying regime [Israel] must be erased from the page of time. This was a very wise statement."
The New York Times translated the statement as Israel "must be wiped off the map," a non-literal translation which nevertheless conveyed the meaning of the original - the destruction of Israel. Despite the international controversy that Ahmadinejad's language generated, a report on his October 2005 speech was still available on his presidential website as of May 2008.
"Jerusalem-Occupying Regime" - Another Name for the State of Israel
Soft-pedaling Ahmadinejad's call for the destruction of Israel, Prof. Cole told the New York Times that all Ahmadinejad had said was that "he hoped its regime, i.e., a Jewish-Zionist state occupying Jerusalem, would collapse."
Official Iranian spokespersons and organs have since based their slogans on Ahmadinejad's statement, and have loosely translated the statement as "Israel should be wiped off the face of the world." This is evident in pictures showing banners and signs in parades and ceremonies. Even the Iranian newscaster that introduced the report on the "World without Zionism" Conference used the word "Israel" (instead of the "Jerusalem-occupying regime") and also the word "world" (instead of the "page of time"), and thus referred to Ahmadinejad's statement as "erasing Israel, this disgraceful stain, from the world" (clip available from the Jerusalem Center upon request).
While Iranian leaders are well aware that they are watched by the international media and occasionally soften the wording of their statements accordingly, they are less careful in internal forums and events. When Ahmadinejad punctuates his speech before a large crowd with "Death to Israel" (marg bar Esraiil), this is no longer open to various interpretations. He is openly calling for the destruction of a country - and not a regime.
Dehumanization as Prelude to Genocide: Israel as an Infection
In the same speech of October 26, 2005, Ahmadinejad returned to the theme of Israel as dirty vermin which needed to be eradicated: "Soon this stain of disgrace will be cleaned from the garment of the world of Islam, and this is attainable."
In order to remove any doubt in the mind of the Persian reader that Ahmadinejad is referring to Israel, the Iranian president's official site, www.president.ir, interpolates the word "Esraiil" in its report on the speech to explain the expression "stain of disgrace."
A common motif of genocide incitement is the dehumanization of the target population. The Nazi weekly Der Stürmer portrayed Jews as parasites and locusts. In the early 1990s, Hutu propaganda in Rwanda against the Tutsis described them as "cockroaches." Prior to Saddam Hussein's operations against the Iraqi Shi'ite population in 1991, his Baath Party newspaper characterized them as "monkey-faced people." Similarly, President Ahmadinejad has called Israeli Jews "cattle," "blood thirsty barbarians," and "criminals."
Dehumanization has also appeared in other forms, like demonization, by which the target population is described as "Satanic" - a theme specifically used by Ahmadinejad.
The theme of the Israeli germ or microbe is also a common one with the Iranian president. In his speech before a crowd in Bandar Abbas on February 20, 2008, Ahmadinejad said: "In the Middle East, they [the global powers] have created a black and filthy microbe called the Zionist regime, so they could use it to attack the peoples of the region, and by using this excuse, they want to advance their schemes for the Middle East."
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, the President of Iran stated that "global arrogance established the Zionist regime 60 years ago." The Islamic Republic News Agency reported: "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday labeled the Zionist regime as a 'stinking corpse' and said those who think they can revive the corpse of this fabricated and usurper regime are mistaken."
The Destruction of Israel is Achievable and Imminent - Not a Long-Term Historical Process
According to President Ahmadinejad, ridding the world of the germ Israel is possible and imminent. On April 14, 2006, Ahmadinejad insisted that Israel was "heading towards annihilation." He added that Israel was: "A dried, rotten tree that will collapse with a single storm."
The President of Iran told a press conference on March 14, 2008, held during a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Senegal: "The Zionist regime is on its way out [destructible]."
Referring to the US (the "Great Satan") and Israel (the "Little Satan"), Ahmadinejad said at a military parade on April 17, 2008: "The region and the world are prepared for great changes and for being cleansed of Satanic enemies."
For Ahmadinejad, Iran's support for the Palestinians will help them destroy the State of Israel. He told a press conference on May 13, 2008: "This terrorist and criminal state is backed by foreign powers, but this regime would soon be swept away by the Palestinians." A day later, Ahmadinejad spoke in Gorgan, in northern Iran, declaring, "Israel's days are numbered," adding that "the peoples of the region would not miss the narrowest opportunity to annihilate this false regime." In a public address shown on the Iranian news channel on June 2, 2008, Ahmadinejad again reiterated: "Thanks to God, your wish will soon be realized, and this germ of corruption will be wiped off the face of the world." Clearly, Ahmadinejad's call for the imminent destruction of Israel was not a one-time event in 2005, but rather publicly declared on multiple occasions.
Israelis as a "Falsified People"
Ahmadinejad was fully prepared to make his assertions about Jews and Israel in the Western press, as well. In an interview that appeared in the French daily Le Monde on February 5, 2008, he said the Jews of Israel are: "a people falsified, invented, [the people of Israel] will not last; they must leave the territory."
From the interview it is clear he believes that Israelis will not endure and will not continue to stay on the territory on which they are living. This is not a call for a change of government or new policies alone, but rather for the removal of Israel's Jewish population from the country, either by ethnic cleansing or physical destruction.
How the Statements Are Understood in Iran
While certain Western commentators on Iran seek to whitewash Ahmadinejad's statements on Israel, pro- and anti-regime Iranians (and others in the region) have no doubt that the Iranian president is referring to the destruction of Israel, according to Iranian blogs and forums. There are close to 180,000 Persian-language blogs, and Iranians constitute 53 percent of Internet users in the Middle East.
In the Ham-Mihan Forum, the question was raised about Ahmadinejad's declaration that the countdown towards Israel's destruction had begun. Among the 71 responses:
"My opinion is that first you [Ahmadinejad] should fix up your own country, and then you can say that Israel should be destroyed. The people in Iran don't have bread and we are concerned with Palestine."
"I wish that all of this energy that is devoted to the destruction of Israel would be directed towards the destruction of drug addiction, poverty, corruption and prostitution."
Bloggers at Imam Sadegh University called for boycotting Israeli products, with the following message: "Dear bloggers: If you would like to do so, you can take the first steps towards obliterating Israel from the map of the world."
The Iranian blogs reflect a wide range of views regarding statements by Iranian leaders - primarily Ahmadinejad - on the destruction of Israel. His statement at the "World without Zionism" Conference is widely quoted in blogs - by those supporting the statement, those critical of the statement, and those who support the statement but question the wisdom of the timing. One fact cannot be disputed - Ahmadinejad's statement that "the Jerusalem-occupying regime must be erased from the page of time" was interpreted by Persian-language bloggers - without exception - as meaning the physical destruction of the State of Israel.
Resalat Daily Reflects on an Ahmadinejad Speech: "The Great War Is Ahead of Us"
Resalat, a conservative Iranian daily, published an editorial on October 22, 2006, entitled "Preparations for the Great War," in which it reflected on a speech given by Ahmadinejad two days earlier. It stated: "It must not be forgotten that the great war is ahead of us, perhaps tomorrow, or in a few months, or even a few years. The nation of Muslims must prepare for the great war, so as to completely wipe out the Zionist regime, and remove this cancerous growth (emphasis added).
Calls for the Destruction of Israel Are Echoed Throughout Iran at Military Parades, Billboards, and Demonstrations
Even before Ahmadinejad himself spoke about wiping Israel off the map, the Iranian regime used such expressions but did not leave any doubt about what stood behind this phraseology.
By juxtaposing its call for Israel's elimination with a Shahab 3 missile during a military parade, the Iranian regime itself has clarified that these expressions about Israel's future do not describe a long-term historical process, in which the Israeli state collapses by itself like the former Soviet Union, but rather the actual physical destruction of Israel as a result of a military strike. The Shahab 3 missile has a range of 1,300 kilometers and can reach Israel from launch points in Iranian territory. Once Iran has completed the production of sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium - or weapons-grade plutonium - there is no reason why Iran cannot deploy a future Iranian nuclear weapon on a Shahab 3 missile in order to carry out Ahmadinejad's threat to wipe Israel off the map.
In a Friday sermon, former Iranian President Rafsanjani made the statement: "If one day, a very important day of course, the Islamic world will also be equipped with the weapons available to Israel now, the imperialist strategy will reach an impasse, because the employment of even one atomic bomb inside Israel will wipe it off the face of the earth, but would only do damage to the Islamic world (emphasis added)."
The Statements of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
In the Iranian system, the highest ranking political authority is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Khamenei has made statements about Israel similar to Ahmadinejad. In a Friday sermon on December 15, 2000 (shown on Iranian TV), he declared: "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."
A month later on January 15, 2001, at a meeting with organizers of the International Conference for Support of the Intifada, he stated: "The foundation of the Islamic regime is opposition to Israel and the perpetual subject of Iran is the elimination of Israel from the region."
Iranian journalist Kasra Naji translated this sentence from the original Farsi as follows: "It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region."
Incitement to Genocide
Ahmadinejad's statements have also been reviewed by experts on the Middle East and the Persian language.
Michael Axworthy served as the Head of the Iran Section of Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1998-2000 and then subsequently as a lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He clearly rejects the notion that Ahmadinejad has been mistranslated and misinterpreted: "The formula had been used before by Khomeini and others, and had been translated by representatives of the Iranian regime as 'wiped off the map.' Some of the dispute that has arisen over what exactly Ahmadinejad meant by it has been rather bogus. When the slogan appeared draped over missiles in military parades, that meaning was pretty clear."
Viewed in context, the statements of Iran's leaders and, in particular, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad constitute incitement to genocide of the people of Israel. They are alarmingly similar to the coded statements of incitement that preceded the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis in 1994, and should therefore alarm all peace-loving peoples.
There is an ample legal basis for the prosecution of Ahmadinejad in the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court for direct and public incitement to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.
Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is Senior Research Fellow, Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University, and Rosenbloom Israeli Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University. He has authored and edited several books on the modern Middle East. His latest is Political Liberalization in the Persian Gulf, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.