Three reports related to Iran came across my attention this past week. All three cast doubts upon the common American narrative of Iran as an evil Islamic nation bent on destroying Israel through a developing nuclear weapons capability. There may be ample reason for the United States to oppose Iran as a geopolitical opponent; care must be taken, however, that American public opinion not submit to manipulative propaganda or self-deceit over assumed righteousness.
An example of this last sentence may be viewed here on YouTube, in which a TV commentator argued the US has the ‘moral authority’ to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, which ‘deserves to be annihilated’ because they are ‘evil’.
This rhetoric is parallel to the statement of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to ‘wipe Israel off the face of the earth’. Lest the tit-for-tat be accepted and dismissed as the voice of two extremists, however, the first report suggests Ahmadinejad’s statement was never made at all.
Shortly after his election in 2005, the New York Times quoted Ahmadinejad in a conference entitled ‘A World without Zionism’, ‘As the imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map.’
In a full translation, the NYT issued a slightly different version: ‘Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map.’
Perhaps this translation, however, also took liberties.
In analyzing the speech and providing a word for word translation, Arash Norouzi states Ahmadinejad said: ‘The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.’ Click here for his further analysis, including a survey of how this quote transformed itself in the media into ‘from the face of the earth’, as well as the context in which the quote from the Ayatollah Khomeni – not Ahmadinejad – is utilized.
The brief story, interestingly, does not simply blame Western powers with outright invention. Rather, it was the Iranian IRNA news agency which (mis?)translated his statement as ‘wiped off the face of the map.’ From here the story has become well known, and Ahmadinejad has been compared to a new Hitler desiring a new Holocaust.
Only God knows what is in his heart. Yet from his words he is not arguing for a nuclear strike to demolish Israel as a nation. He is wishing the removal of the Israeli government which according to international law illegally occupies Palestinian land. As Arab revolutions have called for the fall of the regime – Mubarak, etc – he was not specifically calling for the destruction of the state, let alone the Jews as a people.
There is a more than fair possibility Ahmadinejad views Israel, like many Muslims, as an illegitimate creation of Western dominance, and would wish to see its disappearance as a political entity. Repetition of ‘wiped off the map’ or ‘from the face of the earth’, however, must not be utilized in a campaign to demonize him or the Iranian regime.
He did not say it.
Could he do it? Well, this is the focus of the continual focus on Iran’s purported efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. This second news item was widely reported, so it is likely to have already entered American consciousness. While the UN’s atomic energy watchdog has reported that Iran is taking credible steps to enrich uranium, the New York Times released a report doubting Iranian efforts to make a bomb.
The NYT report relies on what it terms ‘the consensus of American intelligence agencies’. That is, our people tasked with determining what is happening on the ground do not believe Iran is undertaking steps to develop a nuclear weapon. Read the whole article for what uranium enrichment might entail, as well as the Israeli intelligence opinions which doubt the American consensus.
As above, the truth of the matter may be difficult to obtain. The point is to take note of all evidence which runs counter to a rush at demonization, and worse, a call to war. The call has not been issued yet, but some are certainly arguing for a pre-emptive strike, at the least.
The third news item is not as geopolitically important as the first two, but serves similarly to call into question established conventional wisdom. There is palpable fear, much of it reasonable, that the Arab revolutions opened the door to the rule of a backwards and inflexible sharia law. Of the Muslim nations in the world, Iran is one of the few to actually seek its full implementation.
This is why it is noteworthy to recognize the Iranian parliament amended all laws to forbid the penalty of stoning, whether for adultery or other offenses.
That this is a debate at all will lend evidence to common Western opinions about the backwardness of Iran and the nature of Islamic sharia. The more nuanced point to take away is that Iran – far removed from any need to polish its reputation to the West – decided to reinterpret sharia. The linked article details the internal controversy this has sparked, but gives evidence that a legal reference to sharia, demanded by many Islamist parties, does not necessarily entail draconian provisions cemented during the Middle Ages.
None of the above argues in favor of sharia, only that in all cases, what is accepted as the law of God can only be implemented by the hands of men. Men can be just or unjust with any legal code, not all of which are equal.
A fourth news item, however, serves to reinforce the common narrative. Christian pastor and Muslim convert Youcef Nadarkhani still faces the sentence of hanging for his apostasy.
Does Iran hate Israel and desire its destruction? Is it seeking to produce a nuclear weapon? Does it enslave its people through medieval codes of justice?
The answer to each of these questions is maybe. It is the task of diplomats, intelligence agents, and human rights activists to answer this question more definitively, and it is the task of media to convey their answers to the public.
What I fear is that some media has also taken upon itself the task of simplification at the least, obscuration perhaps, and manipulation at the worst. Many paint Iran as the chief obstacle to world stability, yet this map – however disputable in detail – paints a different picture as to which nation is under threat:
It is a given that every nation must pursue its interests, and these are often at odds with one another. Yet the United States suffers from the inconvenient reality that the majority of its population holds to a sense of morality vis-à-vis interests. In order to take decisive steps in the international arena, the government must assure the public it is an issue including right versus wrong.
In the case of Iran, the United States may well be ‘right’. America has strong and legally enshrined traditions of freedom, human rights, and respect for national sovereignty. Yet we must be aware not only of the above counter-interpretations concerning Iran, but moreover the reality of this American truism. We are not free to simply impose our will, we must remain a defender of freedom and justice for all.
Were this not so we could simply be an empire.
Therefore, when the truism is summoned, it can also be doubted. Is our Iranian policy determined by freedom and justice, or are these principles manipulated to support a more interests-based global agenda? I don’t know, and the problem is the vast majority of the public does not know either. But at the very least, we must ask the question, and not allow misrepresentation when it is discovered.
Note: One posited explanation can be found here, defining the issue in terms of global energy and currency. Common tropes, to be sure, which also deserve to be questioned.
- Principled Foreign Policy (April 20, 2011)
- Bahrain, Conspiracies, and US-Iranian Cooperation (April 3, 2011)