Zirzamin 27

According to Con Coughlin’s report in today’s Daily Telegraph, Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program is codenamed Zirzamin 27: “Iran accused of hiding secret nuclear weapons site.” In today’s New York Sun, Eli Lake considers Coughlin’s report: “Secret plan is mooted on Iranian A-bomb.”

On a related note, yesterday’s New York Times Week in Review carried an interesting piece by Ethan Bronner on President Ahmadinejad’s stated desire to wipe Israel off the map. Bronner examines the threat as originally stated in Persian and examines the accuracy of its translation into English. Professor Juan Cole makes an interesting guest appearance:

For months, a debate among Iran specialists over both questions has been intensifying. It starts as a dispute over translating Persian but quickly turns on whether the United States (with help from Israel) is doing to Iran what some believe it did to Iraq — building a case for military action predicated on a faulty premise.

“Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian,” remarked Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan and critic of American policy who has argued that the Iranian president was misquoted. “He did say he hoped its regime, i.e., a Jewish-Zionist state occupying Jerusalem, would collapse.” Since Iran has not “attacked another country aggressively for over a century,” he said in an e-mail exchange, “I smell the whiff of war propaganda.”

Jonathan Steele, a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in London, recently laid out the case this way: “The Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran’s first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that ‘this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,’ just as the Shah’s regime in Iran had vanished. 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.”

Mr. Steele added that neither Khomeini nor Mr. Ahmadinejad suggested that Israel’s “vanishing” was imminent or that Iran would be involved in bringing it about. “But the propaganda damage was done,” he wrote, “and Western hawks bracket the Iranian president with Hitler as though he wants to exterminate Jews.”

If Mr. Steele and Mr. Cole are right, not one word of the quotation — Israel should be wiped off the map — is accurate.

But translators in Tehran who work for the president’s office and the foreign ministry disagree with them. All official translations of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statement, including a description of it on his Web site (www.president.ir/eng/), refer to wiping Israel away. Sohrab Mahdavi, one of Iran’s most prominent translators, and Siamak Namazi, managing director of a Tehran consulting firm, who is bilingual, both say “wipe off” or “wipe away” is more accurate than “vanish” because the Persian verb is active and transitive.

The second translation issue concerns the word “map.” Khomeini’s words were abstract: “Sahneh roozgar.” Sahneh means scene or stage, and roozgar means time. The phrase was widely interpreted as “map,” and for years, no one objected. In October, when Mr. Ahmadinejad quoted Khomeini, he actually misquoted him, saying not “Sahneh roozgar” but “Safheh roozgar,” meaning pages of time or history. No one noticed the change, and news agencies used the word “map” again.

Ahmad Zeidabadi, a professor of political science in Tehran whose specialty is Iran-Israel relations, explained: “It seems that in the early days of the revolution the word ‘map’ was used because it appeared to be the best meaningful translation for what he said. The words ‘sahneh roozgar’ are metaphorical and do not refer to anything specific. Maybe it was interpreted as ‘book of countries,’ and the closest thing to that was a map. Since then, we have often heard ‘Israel bayad az naghshe jographya mahv gardad’ — Israel must be wiped off the geographical map. Hard-liners have used it in their speeches.”

The final translation issue is Mr. Ahmadinejad’s use of “occupying regime of Jerusalem” rather than “Israel.”

To some analysts, this means he is calling for regime change, not war, and therefore it need not be regarded as a call for military action. Professor Cole, for example, says: “I am entirely aware that Ahmadinejad is hostile to Israel. The question is whether his intentions and capabilities would lead to a military attack, and whether therefore pre-emptive warfare is prescribed. I am saying no, and the boring philology is part of the reason for the no.”

But to others, “occupying regime” signals more than opposition to a certain government; the phrase indicates the depth of the Iranian president’s rejection of a Jewish state in the Middle East because he refuses even to utter the name Israel. He has said that the Palestinian issue “does not lend itself to a partial territorial solution” and has called Israel “a stain” on Islam that must be erased. By contrast, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, said that if the Palestinians accepted Israel’s existence, Iran would go along.

When combined with Iran’s longstanding support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah of Lebanon, two groups that have killed numerous Israelis, and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust, it is hard to argue that, from Israel’s point of view, Mr. Ahmadinejad poses no threat. Still, it is true that he has never specifically threatened war against Israel.

The distinction between “wiping Israel off the map” and “threatening war” is too subtle for me, but Cole’s quarrel with the official translations of Ahmadinejad’s expressed desire to wipe Israel off the map is telling in its own way.

JOHN adds: This reminds me of a linguistic debate of my youth. In the 1950s or early 60s, Khrushchev famously said, “We will bury you!” This was taken as irrefutable evidence of the Soviet Union’s aggressive intentions. Before long, however, a revisionist (liberal( school sprang up, which claimed that Khrushchev had been misunderstood. These scholars argued that the Russian phrase that Khrushchev used means, “We will be present at your funeral”–a somewhat more pacifist formula. It’s the difference between “We will kill you” and “We will outlive you.” The debate was interesting, and the liberals may well have had the better of the lnguistic argument. But that didn’t mean, of course, that Khrushchev and his Politburu colleagues didn’t have every intention of burying us, killing us, defeating us–choose your verb. Likewise, it would be quite a scoop if Ahmadinejad and the mad mullahs have anything in mind for Israel other than destruction.

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