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Reading Between the Lines on Iran

Maoz Brown

When it comes to discussing the legitimacy of Iranian nuclear aspirations, the subject that undoubtedly receives disproportionate attention is language.

For those unfamiliar, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech in 2005 at a conference titled, “The World Without Zionism.” The New York Times published an English translation of the speech, including the memorable and inflammatory phrase “the occupying regime (Israel) must be wiped off the map…” This utterance launched a semantic fracas involving various parties and individuals making conflicting claims about just what the Iranian leader intended to say.

According to Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project, Ahmadinejad was referring to Israel not as a landmass or a country, but rather as a government. Furthermore, he never used the Farsi word for “map,” or anything comparable to the Western phrase “wipe out,” with its connotation of total destruction.

So what did Ahmadinejad say? As it turns out, he actually said, “The Imam (Khomeini) said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” And so, Norouzi concludes, the Iranian president was simply calling for regime change.

Shiraz Dossa, professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University, also believes that Ahmadinejad was speaking in more metaphysical tropes and that the statement “denotes a spiritual wish.”

Juan Cole, professor of Middle East and South Asian Studies at University of Michigan, concurs with Norouzi’s translation and even adds that Ahmadinejad is reported to have said that Iran poses no threat to Israel and wants to deal with the problem there through peaceful elections:

“I interpret his statement on Saturday to be an endorsement of the one-state solution, in which a government would be elected that all Palestinians and all Israelis would jointly vote for. The result would be a government about half made up of Israeli ministers and half of Palestinian ones. Whatever one wanted to call such an arrangement, it wouldn’t exactly be a ‘Zionist state,’ which would thus have been dissolved.”

“Dissolved.” Now there is a word that merits semantic analysis. Perhaps Dr. Cole believes that in this idealized bi-national scenario, Israel’s political institutions and mechanisms would gradually “break up,” “liquefy,” and “mix” with Palestinian politics into a more humanistic, democratic solution (pun intended), in which the Jewish lifecycle and the Hebrew language would continue to flourish as abstract ornaments of a multicultural and peaceful Israstine. Of course, such a setup would be far closer to Bosnia, Cyprus, or Lebanon than to some far-fetched Middle Eastern Switzerland, Belgium, or Quebec.

That aside, observe how eager some appear to paint Ahmadinejad as a wrongly accused peacenik.

The problem here is that Israel is not fighting a bloc of territory with a flag, an anthem, and a soccer team. Rather, Israel is up against an ideology that takes the form of an often hidden system with which the international community needs to become more familiar.

Israel, of course, does not have the luxury of entertaining such outdated Westphalian notions as the Iranian military alone constituting a threat. Israeli military personnel are well aware of the constellation that runs from the Bandar Abbas port in Iran to the Aseb harbor in Eritrea to the smuggling routes of the Sinai.

In this sense, if scholars and pundits really insist on dwelling on language, then they would be well served to consider these gems of the Persian lexicon: Fajr, Zelzal, Ra’ad, Saeghe – all Iranian-made missiles put to use by Hezbollah.

It is well known that Hezbollah is a proxy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Though the group operates in Lebanon and now participates in the government there, its military wing is largely funded, trained, and equipped by the same Iran that supposedly poses no threat to Israel. The troubling issue is this: If it is common knowledge that Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran, why do so many people fail to take this fact into proper consideration when making claims about Iran and the prospect of nuclear technology entering the transit routes between Iran and Israel’s borders?

A possible answer is that it is just terribly inconvenient to concede this point if one has approached the Middle East as if it is some kind of geopolitical world problem, in which a solution can be achieved rather easily if only the correct formula is applied. In this imagined reality, players are states with borders, representatives, and constituents, and they are accountable to a well organized and supervising international community. Investigations are conducted methodically in accordance with an enlightened system of international law, and there is broad agreement on the point that rationalism and multicultural respect are at the heart of political progress.

So, when the United Nations Security Council releases a report (see report 566 dated November 2, 2009) in which it expresses an inability to verify Israeli claims of large numbers of arms entering Lebanon, scholars and pundits can rest assured that these claims are without merit. But then, it is quite inconvenient when on November 4, 2009, just two days after the release of the UN report, the Israeli navy intercepts a ship headed for Lebanon carrying hundreds of tons of Iranian weapons disguised as innocuous commercial goods.

Consider what would have taken place on November 4th if the Israeli leadership knew that the source of these weapons was a nuclear power. Consider how much easier it would be for Hezbollah to flaunt its military prowess and escalate its rhetoric if the entire region were aware that its ideological, monetary, and logistical backing comes from a government that has developed nuclear weapons. And of course, Israel is not the only country that should be concerned.

Hezbollah has already graduated from being a guerilla force to a conventional threat, and its leadership has been quite unabashed about its intentions. Consider what their spokesperson, Hassan Ezzeddin, said:

“Our goal is to liberate the 1948 borders of Palestine. [The Jews who survive this war] can go back to Germany, or wherever they came from. [The Jews who lived in Palestine before 1948 will be] allowed to live as a minority, and they will be cared for by the Muslim majority.”

It would be interesting to find out what kind of metaphorical intention can be gleaned from this excerpt by the academic likes of Shiraz Dossa and Juan Cole.

It is high time we recognize Iran for what it is—a node in a system that must be comprehended and appreciated in its entirety. When people speak of lifting the blockade of Gaza, they need to remember that it will not just be cement and chickpeas that flow unchecked to the radical Islamist government there. When we talk of peace with Syria, we need to remember the personalities operating under the radar of Damascus press conferences.

Scholars of international law need to shed their preoccupation with nation-states as the major international players and evolve to the point of more thoroughly understanding the interplay of terms like “non-state actor,” “plausible deniability,” “technological advances,” and “ideology.” Once we integrate such phrases into our Middle Eastern political vocabulary, we can begin talking about the wording and metaphorical resonance of presidential speeches.

Maoz Brown previously worked as a researcher for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He holds a degree in English literature with highest honors from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a masters degree at Hebrew University.