President Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and represents a threat to every country in the region - one we cannot ignore or minimize.No one should to minimize the insanity of Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who cut his teeth psyching up Iranian pre-teens for suicide runs across minefields in the Iran-Iraq War. But when dealing with a madman, you have to listen carefully. And Ahmadinejad, while certainly expressing a death wish for the Israeli state, did not in fact threaten to "wipe Israel off the face of the earth."
The literal meaning and full context of Ahmadinejad's words, uttered at a "World without Zionism" conference and misquoted by McCain, have been credibly detailed by the artist Arash Norouzi, co founder of the Mossadegh Project (devoted to restoring and honoring the memory of the democratically elected Iranian leader deposed by a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953). In an article posted on the Mossadegh Project website, Norouzi makes the following points:
1. Ahmadinejad was quoting Ayatollah Khomeini when he uttered the infamous words.
2. The literal translation is as follows: "The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time. This statement is very wise". This is an expressed wish for regime change, not a threat to annihilate a people.
3. Ahmadinejad's 'thesis' was that Khomeini predicted the destruction of four regimes, and three of them have in fact "vanished": the Shah's, the Soviet Union, and Saddam's (two of them without any contribution from Iran). The implication is that the fourth will follow. The means are left unspecified.
That "wiped off the face of the map" was a mistranslation -- albeit one originated by Iranian authorities -- is a verifiable fact spelled out by multiple sources.
McCain's adoption of the mistranslation is of a family with his other errors about Iran. One, in this same speech, pointed out by Hilzoy (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), is that we've "tried talking" to the Iranian government "repeatedly over the past two decades" (Hilzoy: Does McCain not understand that the stated policy of the U.S. government since April 7, 1980 has been to NOT TALK TO THE IRANIANS. And that we have not negotiated with Iran over their nuclear weapons program). Another is McCain's now-famous assertion that Iran is aiding al Qaeda in Iraq. These gross errors fit neatly together: Iran aids our own worst enemy (in the Land of McCain, there's no difference between Al Qaeda proper and Al Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda's mortal hostility toward Shiites is of no consequence); Iran is a mortal threat to Israel (possibly, but the evidence here is hyped); Iran has proved fruitless to negotiate with.
Where does that leave us? "Bomb, bomb Iran"? Oh, that was just McCain's little joke. God forbid the Iranians should be crazy enough to misinterpret it.
Raising the specter of a world in which many states obtain nuclear weapons, McCain's looks back with nostalgia to a time "when the threat of mutually assured destruction could deter responsible states from thinking the unthinkable."The implicit contrast here is between that old-time paragon of "responsibility," the Soviet Union, and the mad mullahs of Iran. Never mind that the era of MAD between the U.S. and USSR began in the time of Stalin, a one-time ally whose regime was a thousand times more murderous than that of Iran's admittedly brutal mullah's; that we reached the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets two or three times at least; that far from regarding them as a "responsible" adversary, we acted for four decades on the assumption that they were bent on world domination. With them it was "responsible" to negotiate; with the Iranians, negotiation is rank appeasement. At the same time, McCain is of that school that yearns desperately to elevate diverse threats from the Islamic world to the status of a Cold War-level adversary.
This is not to say that Amadinejad's world-view and deeds are not appalling, or that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology and rooted hostility to Israel should not be regarded as grave threats. Mistranslating Ahmadinejad's words to exaggerate their threat is a matter of, pardon the expression, nuance. (But nuance is making a comeback, even within the Bush Adminstration: today, according to the Financial Times, a spokesman for national security advisor Stephen Hadley justified use of the term "War on Terror" on the grounds that "We recognize that the use of the word 'Islamic' before the word terrorist can be heard by Muslims...as lacking nuance." ) International relations are not a U.S. political campaign--there's nothing to be gained by willfully distorting an adversary's words, however hateful.
Taken at face value, McCain's "Bomb, bomb Iran" clowning is every bit as inflammatory as Ahmadinejad's invocation of Khomeini. Indeed the threat is far more credible. Iran currently lacks the means to erase Israel from the page of time. On the other hand, McCain's self-appointed fellow traveler across the commander-in-chief threshold, Hillary Clinton, has gleefully reminded the world that the U.S. is fully able to "obliterate" Iran. The current U.S. president, with the full support of McCain (and the tepid support of Clinton), invaded Iran's near neighbor on premises that proved to be false. And McCain's own logic seems to suggest that talking to Iran is pointless.