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Jeffrey Goldberg On Ahmadinejad On Wiping Out Israel

Jeffrey Goldberg steps into the debate over the nature of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incendiary remarks about Israel, to call out Harvard Professor Stephen Walt of 'Walt-Mearsheimer' (in)fame(y) for downplaying the idea that Ahmadinejad is "inciting to genocide" (Walt's terms) … Read More

By / June 19, 2008

Jeffrey Goldberg steps into the debate over the nature of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incendiary remarks about Israel, to call out Harvard Professor Stephen Walt of 'Walt-Mearsheimer' (in)fame(y) for downplaying the idea that Ahmadinejad is "inciting to genocide" (Walt's terms) in Israel. For reasons that a Persian speaker will readily comprehend (and a sufficiently deterimined non-sokhbako could figure out), I'm going to refer to the Iranian president by his nickname among his adoring people, 'Ahmaghinejad,' from here on out.

Goldberg's check and mate many times over is a tranche of Ahmaghinejad quotes, from the notorious "wipe off the map" comment of October 2005, to a statement just this month, all of which are variously loathsome vamps on the old "Israel must cease to exist" standard. I've noted here at Jewcy before that Ahmaghinejad's "wipe off the map" remark of October 2005 is a mistranslation; my objections to repeating it are 1) it offends me as a student of Persian and 2) given the enormous supply of sickening comments from Ahmaghinejad re: Israel, of which Goldberg usefully provides a small but still representative sample, there isn't even a pragmatic rationale for persisting in mistranslating the remark. (We have an idea of what Ahmaghinejad says about Israel publicly; imagine what he says in private.) I'd hope Goldberg would credit the idea that, however merited objections to Walt and Mearsheimer are, fealty to the correct use and translation of Persian doesn't entail being an apologist for Ahmaghinejad.

The question, of course, is how best to interpret the comments. It's not a straightforward task, since Ahmaghinejad's speeches are littered with quotes from the Ayatollah Khomeini and from medieval Persian poets that involve idioms that don't correspond to anything in English, so figuring out what he meant involves either learning the language, or doing some careful inductive guesswork and hoping for the best.

Although I haven't been able to track down the originals of all the quotes Goldberg reproduces (there might be links on the Ahmadine-blog, in case somebody is willing to pore through the archives), I've looked at a few, and they have a number of recurrent features. Ahmaghinejad rarely if ever refers to Israel by name, but rather as ???? ???????? (rezhim-e eshghalgar), the 'occupying regime', of which the first word is an obvious western import that only has a narrow, technical meaning referring to a particular governmental apparatus (generally, as in English, in pejorative tones). By contrast, the Persian words for 'country' and 'nation' in a broader, non-technical sense are ???? (keshvar) and ??? (mellat), respectively. Moreover, the stem of the key verbs in Ahmaghinejad's proclamations of Israel's doom (at least, in the ones I've looked at) is always ??? (shodan) rather than ???? (kardan). This is a major, not a minor semantic difference: the latter is used in active and indicative constructions; the former is used in passive and subjunctive constructions. Which means that, on strict semantics, Ahmaghinejad has been expressing either a belief that Israel will cease to exist or a desire that it will (or both), rather than stating a policy objective.

Now, none of this suggests for a moment that the narrow semantic values of Ahmaghinejad's declarations of the impending destruction of the state of Israel completely exhaust the messages he was communicating (that's the first lesson of practical linguistics). And the upshot of the fact that Ahmaghinejad, strictly speaking, fastened his attacks on the Israeli "regime" rather than Israel or the Israelis, and that he never explicitly signed on to the project of bringing about the destruction of that "regime," isn't that Ahmaghinejad was really talking about flowers and candy and has gotten a rough break in the Western press. On the contrary, it simply goes to show that a politician is a politician no matter where he's from, and what distinguishes even deranged racist ignoramus politicians from deranged racist ignoramus non-politicians is that the former will speak calculatingly, as the politicians that they are. So even though Ahmaghinejad isn't literally pledging the Iranian state to a policy of genocide, he is personally endorsing an event — the destruction of the Israeli government — that would very likely entail the slaying of large numbers of Israelis.

Furthermore, Walt's term 'incitement' is (unintentionally) spot-on. When a leader "incites violence," he or she seldom does so by literally telling those under his or her influence to go out and kill, injure or maim anyone (we would call that "ordering attacks," not "incitement to violence"). Rather, incitement standardly consists in pushing just the right buttons to spur violence while maintaining a veneer of deniability. And that, plainly, is part of what Ahmaghinejad has been communicating, i.e.: "While I, the terribly important president of this holy state don't have the time or inclination to get my hands dirty, it sure is about time somebody did something to remove the regime occupying Qods from the pages of time and history."

There's just no other plausible way of interpreting the comments while being simultaneously faithful to both semantics and to the pragmatic implications that enable us as human beings, rather than artificial intelligence, to communicate with one another. Call me crazy, but I have a feeling that if, say, an Afrikaner politician mused about how black rule in South Africa is shortly coming to an end and pre-emptively endorsed a campaign of violence and intimidation against Africans without literally pledging to be a part of it, nobody would have a difficult time understanding what was up.

But the heinousness of Ahmaghinejad's incitements immediately raises the question of just what influence he has, and this is where I break with Goldberg. Permit me this Godwin's law violation, since I'm committing it only to strengthen the case I'm arguing against. Suppose that Hitler had had all the beliefs about Jews that he did in fact have, desired to exterminate the Jewish people, etc., but lived out his days as a penurious mediocre landscape painter in Munich never committing so grave a crime as jaywalking. His beliefs themselves wouldn't be any less vile under those circumstances, but in such a scenario, the fact that he held those beliefs just wouldn't be very important. Indeed, it's a matter of simple statistical probability that there have been untold numbers of people whose personal antisemitism and genocidal fantasies were more virulent than Hitler's on some sort of one-to-one comparison of beliefs, but we just don't and shouldn't care about such people. What made Hitler a menace was not only the evil of his ideology, which on its own couldn't do anything, but also his control of the most powerful war machine in world history up to that point.

That's why fretting over Ahmaghinejad's remarks about Israel is a waste of energy, even as it's good to stay alert to the casual antisemitism that excuses such remarks but would never countenance equivalent incitements against other groups . Maybe — maybe! — there are some irredentists in Gaza or the West Bank whose Shi'ism is strong enough to overcome the hatred of Persians they've been taught since childhood, who don't recognize what a laughingstock Ahmaghinejad is in Iran, and who take the clear message of his remarks to heart. But how many such people could there be, who will engage in terrorism against Israel because of Ahmaghinejad, but wouldn't have otherwise? I strongly doubt it would take very many hands to count them all.

As for the significance of Ahmaghinejad's remarks for the Iranian government and Iranian society, it's basically non-existent. Despite the fact that his title is "President" — as I'll continue to point out again and again — Iranian state power is completely in the hands of the small circle of clerics around Ali Khamenei. Any power Ahmaghinejad exercises is at Khamenei & co.'s discretion, and can be rescinded on a whim. Indeed, as observers of the Iranian political scene well know, Khamenei's loathing of Ahmaghinejad is nearly as strong as that of educated Iranian society at large. Khamenei has barely tolerated Ahmaghinejad's presence in the government because he represented a significant, boorish segment of the Iranian "electorate" — a term I bracket with scare quotes both because the pool of Iranian voters is not representative of the country, and the elections in which they vote do not have any practical effect on the composition of the real leadership. And now that Ahmaghinejad's buffoonery has destroyed whatever popular support he enjoyed, Khamenei and the clerics were swift to exclude him from the government in every respect except nominally.

To be sure, many of the interests the regime in Tehran is working to advance conflict with American interests, and the regime's suppression of liberal freedoms and abuse of women and homosexuals is abhorrent. Nonetheless, Khamenei et al., who do hold power, have demonstrated again and again that they are practitioners of realpolitik, unlike Ahmaghinejad, who is an apocalyptic fanatic but fortunately doesn't hold power.

And in fact, the United States and Israel have some significant interests in common with Iran. (Those Zionists who long for the days of the Shah can fill in the details of why Iran is Israel's only natural ally in the middle East.) American and Israeli strategic interests and security are threatened by militarized Sunni extremists; and so are Iranian strategic interests and security. Some of the worst disasters in western and central Asia that could befall the United States and Israel are the takeover of Iraq by Wahhabist fanatics, the recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the Talibanization of Pakistan, or any combination thereof; those would arguably be even greater disasters for Iran. And the Iranian regime wants to preserve its power, which in practice will mean delivering economic prosperity; likewise, the US wants Iran to scuttle its nuclear research and militarization, and holds important keys to helping Iran achieve prosperity. And just to conclude scratching the surface, the Iranian people themselves, whatever the positions of their government, are decidedly pro-Western and pro-American.

These features of Iran's polity and society and of the international relations picture by no means guarantee that diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic will be successful; but they do nonetheless come with some welcome sureties. As long as Iran is controlled by Ali Khamenei, the chances of a first strike on a nuclear power with massive deterrent capabilities (e.g. the US or Israel) are effectively null. Such a strike would be suicide, and the actual Iranian regime, as opposed to its court jester, is not suicidal. Moreover, the foundation already exists, and indeed has existed for decades, for engagement with Iran not merely at the highest strata of the government, but with the Iranian people themselves. Say what you will about Zbigniew Brzezinski — but don't dare say it about the recently departed, much beloved William Odom — they had exactly the right approach for dealing with Iran, and helpfully put Ahmaghinejad in his rightful, unserious place in the process.

As Brzezinski elaborated in a recent appearance on Morning Joe (sorry, no transcript available), applying the model of long-term cultural penetration through semi-official outreach like Radio Free Europe, encouragement of consumerism, exposure to the fruits of western liberties, etc., that was so successful in weakening the Iron Curtain, has even stronger prospects for success in Iran, where popular affinity for Western and indeed American values is pervasive. Iran certainly presents a major foreign policy challenge, and even if it poses no existential threats, its sponsorship of anti-Israeli terrorism is intolerable.

But stamping our feet won't do anything about that, and coming to a correct moral judgment about Iranian support for Hezbollah and Mahmoud Ahmaghinejad's eliminationist fantasies is not even the beginning, let alone the end, of policy to curb the Iranian threat. In particular, devoting vastly more attention than he deserves to an antisemitic circus act who can only be relevant to the future of US- and Israeli-Iranian relations if Americans and Israelis elect to make him relevant, threatens to obscure the full picture, in which engagement with Iran, in addition to being a challenge, is also an enormous opportunity.

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