How Obama Recycled a Lie about Iran

Exclusive: President Obama has joined much of Official Washington in mistranslating a comment by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad into the provocative phrase, “wiping Israel off the map.” Obama’s falsehood recalls President George W. Bush’s bogus claim about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa, says ex-CIA analyst Elizabeth Murray.

By Elizabeth Murray

In June 2007, Middle East expert and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole remarked that bad translations can sometimes start wars. Professor Cole, in this case, was referring to the misleading, yet widely circulated mistranslated remark by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a speech in 2005 — in which he is purported to have said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

This old canard — long dismissed by Persian language experts as a gross distortion of Ahmadinejad’s actual words — is regularly trotted out by Israeli leaders and their supporters as proof that Iran’s regime intends genocide against Israel, thereby justifying a military attack on Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at work at his desk. (Credit: Official Web Site of the President of Iran)

However, a literal translation of Ahmadinejad’s 2005 statement would be something like “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,” a reference back to an earlier statement made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele explained in 2006.

Ahmadinejad essentially was predicting that Israel’s rule over Jerusalem would eventually come to an end, much like the once mighty Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. He and other Iranian leaders have repeated similar predictions since then, but without any suggestion that Iran would attack Israel. [For more, see "Wiped Off the Map - the Rumour of the Century" by Arash Norouzi.]

Earlier this month, Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, conceded the point in an interview with Al Jazeera. He agreed that Iranian leaders “didn’t say, ‘We’ll wipe [Israel] out,’ you’re right, but [said instead] ‘it will not survive. It is a cancerous tumor, it should be removed.’ They repeatedly said ‘Israel is not legitimate, it should not exist.’”

Though the “wiped off the map” phrase is a myth, it has been transformed into accepted wisdom in Official Washington by its endless repetition and remains a frequent refrain of U.S. politicians and the corporate media.

For instance, in an appearance last month on MSNBC, Mark Landler, the New York Times’ White House correspondent, said, “The Israelis feel the window for that [denying Iran the capability to build nuclear weapons] is closing and it’s closing really fast, and if they allow it to close without taking military action, they would find themselves in a position where the Iranians suddenly are in possession of nuclear weapons, which they’ve threatened already to use against Israel.” [Emphasis added]

The last part of Landler’s comment was an apparent reference to the Ahmadinejad misquote, with the made-up addendum that Iran has threatened to use nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map. In fact, Iran has not threatened to use a nuclear bomb against Israel and has even disavowed any intent of developing a nuclear bomb. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Sloppy Comments on Iran’s ‘Nukes.’”]

Also, last month, President Barack Obama repeated the “wiped off the map” fiction in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (to considerable applause), all the while assuring his audience of his preference for diplomacy in dealing with Tehran. In his speech, Obama said: “Let’s begin with a basic truth that you all understand: no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that … threatens to wipe Israel off the map.”

If President Obama were truly interested in the success of diplomatic engagement with Iran, then why would he continue to issue provocative and propagandistic lies about Iran, especially before the start of delicate negotiations between Iran and the UN P5 +1 (Security Council members plus Germany) regarding Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Loose talk and inflammatory propaganda can only cheapen the United States’ international image, inflicting preemptive harm on whatever prospects for diplomatic progress might be in the offing.

The President’s use of a discredited phrase also brings to mind the careless language depicting a “mushroom cloud” bandied about by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as part of President George W. Bush’s effort to whip the American public into a frenzy of pro-war hysteria against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The late Walter Lippman referred to such tactics as “the manufacture of consent.”   Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, called it “the Big Lie,” that is, a phrase which, if repeated often enough, would eventually pass for the truth.

Having an Iranian leader call into question the legitimacy of the Zionist system of government in Israel and predicting its eventual decline, of course, may be very insulting and offensive to the powers-that-be in Israel, but it is a far cry from a call to attack or wipe out the Israeli population.

This important nuance — acknowledged by no less than a member of the Israeli cabinet — seems to be missing from the discourse of U.S. corporate media and U.S. politicians.  Instead, Ahmadinejad’s criticism of Israel has been deliberately distorted, mistranslated and spun out of context into a physical threat against Israel, ignoring the available factual information that indicates otherwise.

Come to think of it, how did such an inaccurate phrase manage to worm its way into the text of President Obama’s speech to AIPAC? As a rule, presidential speeches are carefully reviewed by experts at the White House, National Security Council and National Intelligence Council for integrity and accuracy. After all, especially in high-profile speeches, the President’s reputation is at stake.

The intelligence officers involved in vetting a speech would have ready access to the Open Source Center’s translation of Ahmadinejad’s 2005 speech from the Persian if they had wanted to ensure the accuracy of the President’s words. Whoever allowed this piece of propaganda to slip through either committed a grave error or had a separate agenda in mind.

This episode brings to mind the criticism of former President Bush for including in his 2003 State of the Union speech a falsehood about Iraq trying to procure yellowcake uranium from Africa – a fiction that helped lead the nation into a costly war and that subsequently brought an apology from CIA Director George Tenet.

In any case, President Obama’s gaffe before AIPAC has certainly done nothing to burnish his reputation (despite the applause it received at the time) because much of the world knows better.

Elizabeth Murray served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council before retiring after a 27-year career in the U.S. government, where she specialized in Middle Eastern political and media analysis. She is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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40 comments on “How Obama Recycled a Lie about Iran

  1. Randal Marlin on said:

    There is another mistranslation parallel. Germans were demonized in World War I because they allegedly boiled down their own dead soldiers to make fertilizer, bone meal, glycerine and other useful products. They did this by mistranslating a report from an official German newspaper. The report was about an installation for the boiling down of horse carcasses, and the report mentioned the smell of glue in the air. The word for the installation was Kadaververwertungsanstalt. “Kadaver” means carcass, “verwertung” means to make use of, and “Anstalt” is an installation. This was misleadingly translated in the press of Lord Northcliffe as “corpse” rather than carcass. “Leim” meaning “glue” was translated as “lime,” making people think of quicklime, used to disinfect corpses. Lord Northcliffe was the Rupert Murdoch of his day. The effect was to make the British and their allies think of Germans as ghouls and ogres who had to be destroyed if civilization was to be saved. This hatred prolonged the senseless war, and made peace negotiations difficult.

    • paul b on said:

      Why, for heaven’s sake, doesn’t the Iranian government issue a clarification??

      • Pat Mason on said:

        Iranians know what was said and what the intent was. Iranians don’t care what the American press spouts…,and why should they? They know – better than anyone – that the American press is simply water-carriers for the U.S. regime and know that these claims are clear propaganda. Why waste time ‘clarifying’ what – at least to them – was a clear statement which is being deliberately skewed? They realize this is not a case of misunderstanding, but of the premeditated demonization of Iran by the U.S.

        • paul b on said:

          Obviously Iran would prefer that the American (and Israeli) public not think Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the map.” Maybe Iran will insist that a correct translation be part of any agreement. (Who knows, maybe Obama will also want a correct translation published in order to counter neocons screaming about a deal with a country that “wants to destroy Israel.”)

      • Cyrus on said:

        well for the simple reason that the misleading phrase got such a quick and vast coverage by those who have their hands in it, a clarification would have got nowhere.

  2. Israelis know exactly what the correct translation of “threatens to wipe Israel off the map is”.
    But to perpetuate the myth is more convenient for them.

  3. Addendum: So does Obama.

  4. ButWhatDoIKnow on said:

    I wish the article had indicated whether the writer had sought comment from Obama or a member of his staff. Great article otherwise.

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      As Rachel Maddow has often said, “We contacted (so and so)for comment, but so far we have not heard back”. I’m sure Murray expects as much response from the Obama Administration on this matter as she would expect a comment from George Bush on the yellowcake issue.

  5. “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”

    This statement even in this form…..clearly states intent. “…..must vanish from the pages of time”…that is a statement of intent. After all, there is no way that something can vanish from the pages of time…if it exists in time unless it is actively made to vanish. And inorder for that to happen, Isreal can no longer exist. I understand that eradicating reality is an old traditional method used by the Pharoh’s of old…to erase from the pages of history that which was disturbing to the regime. Not just to alter…but to erase an entire piece of reality.

    However, connecting this statement to other statements made and actions inflicted since Israel became a state — clearly bespeaks the operative goal of much of the region.

    And to claim it is anything but what it is……..is not the way to stop war with Iran. It is an attempt to confuse the issue and what clearly appears to be the end game goal against Israel. However, only those already commited to the side of eliminating Israel, and those that do not have the ability to understand intent of words can believe the author’s version as a commitment peace in the future.

    “must vanish from the pages of time” indeed….and how pray tell will that come about?

    • bluepilgrim on said:

      It must stop raining by the weekend. That means I will blow up the rain clouds with a nuclear weapon?

      Deceptively torturing words can be more evil than torturing people when it leads to war.

    • rosemerry on said:

      Reagan claims his efforts led to the breakup of the USSR, but other factors, regardless of his “intent”, actually did the damage. it is nosense that a

      • rosemerry on said:

        sorry-pressed wrong button. Ewpecting or wishing for something does NOT mean action. Israel is the one threatening, invading its neighbours, destroying the lives of its occupied population. Iran has done none of these. Israel wats to remain top dog in the region; Iran and the rest of the regin want a nuke-free zone.

      • rosemerry on said:

        Great comments which give us food for thought and need to be disseminated widely. Will the US Fawning Corporate Media (FCM, as Ray McGovern calls them) take up the offer??!!

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      If the literal translation is correct, it is the REGIME in Jerusalem which will vanish, not the state of Israel or the Israeli people. I think there are many Jews who hope for the same thing.

      • Joe Wolf on said:

        Yes, it would be truly wonderful to see Israel governed by Muslims and Jews and Christians all working alongside one another.

    • dcnataro on said:

      Everything must vanish from the pages of time. You don’t have to
      do anything for this to happen (.. pray tell). You may have to wait
      until the sun becomes a supernova, but it will happen to everything.
      Nations often hasten the vanishing process by means of their own
      stupidity.

      The simple truth is that Ahmadinejad didn’t say that he was going to
      try to “wipe Israel off the map”. Maybe he wants to, but that’s not
      what he said.

      But, it serves a propaganda purpose for those who want war with a
      nation they don’t like – kinda like the WMD lies did for war with
      Iraq. That’s why such things are so dangerous – they spawn additional
      lies like those of Landler mentioned in the article. The next thing you
      know, you have another war – and war often takes unpleasant turns for those who want it.

      Anybody who thinks that Iran will really attack Israel under any circumstance is a damfool. The Persians know, as well as you do,
      that most of he muslims in the world will be dying or dead within
      an hour of any such attack.

      The Persians are too smart for this. That’s why they’re still around.

    • The quote talked about how real democracy would get rid of this evil Zionist regime.I’ve sudyed this many times,dissapearing wopuld mean no longer ruleing Israel.So stop your lieing you scum bag thje real inteveiw was edited to get ride of these facts wathch for yourself.But I’m sure you would still lie actually 100% sure.Israel was the worst thing to happen to the world Germany never started WW2,in 1933 the papers said Judea Declares war on Germany,and the Zionist along with Prescot Bush and others funded both sides of the war.Hitler was going to let every Jew go free for 2 million dollars,but the Zionists t5he filthy rich Zionists did not take the offer they sacrificed there own people to get Palistine illegasly that was agreed to during WW1.AND THIS IS ALL FACT WRITEN IN PAPERS SO BLAME YOUR OWN PEOPLE AS MUCH AS hITLER FOR THE HOLOCAST.ALSO REMEMBER 20 MILLION PEOPLE DIED IN WW2 NOT JUST JEWS.

      • Also remember the 30 million if not more that died in Russia starting in 1917 by the Jews that lied to people and muderd Russias ruler along with his 5 children.The Holocast was evil and should never have happened,but their are many things that have happened due to lies,look at Afganistan Iraq and so many more and no you are pussing for an illegal war against Iran.Why did no one help in Dafur or Ruwanda,I know why the scum that runs are countrys could care less about life as long as it’s not theres our their famillys.Trust me millions many million learn the real truth all the time and the Zionist controlled MSM will no longer be able to lie the masses into illegal wars by scaring them.No country attacked since and before 9/11 could do anything harmfull to America our Israel with out being wiped of the map for real.Again the vHolocast was evil but at least 100dreds of other things were just as bad causing many times more death.Hitler will pay,but so will many others that have done evil that cost millions their lifes.

        • Also remember the 30 million if not more that died in Russia starting in 1917 by the Jews that lied to people and muderd Russias ruler along with his 5 children. what?

    • Pat Mason on said:

      What you fail to understand is the clear intent of the message which refers to the POLITICAL REGIME of Israel. It has nothing to do with physically destroying the nation of Israel (as this, and many other articles have clearly stated). If anyone has an ‘intent,’ it is people like you – obviously ‘Israeli Firsters’ – who want to perpetuate the myth.

  6. F. G. Sanford on said:

    NEW YORK (BNO NEWS) — United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday expressed concern after Israel’s decision to formally approve three outposts in the West Bank, which they both described as ‘illegal.’

    Ban, in a statement through his spokesman, reiterated that all settlement activity is illegal under international law and that “it runs contrary to Israel’s obligations under the Road Map and repeated Quartet calls for the parties to refrain from provocations.”

    Apparently, the only real “map-wiping” or “vanishing” actually going on is that perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. How naive it is to suspect that the Goebbels strategy of “The Big Lie” will work outside the sphere of American mainstream media. But it’s OK for Israel to do the “map-wiping”, because they’re “chosen”, and God said it’s OK. The hypocrisy of American foreign policy framers groveling at the feet of AIPAC is revolting. It proves only one thing: Hillary wants another shot at the presidency, and Ms. Rice is sucking right up to be a cabinet member or VP. Waddya wanna bet?

    • Gregory L Kruse on said:

      Well said.

    • Could not have said it better myself.It takes good people to speek the truth and one day we all will and sooner than the scum running are countrys realize.I don’t follpow a religion,but do belive in GOD so GOD bless you and others like you.I still belive their are more good people than bad we just need to stick togeather and stop letting them use race religion and anything they can think of to seperate us.7Billion we have the power we just don’t use it,but we will and sooner than most think.If Iran is illegaly attacked then people are going to rebell and we now how the mudering war criminals are,and they will be the first people dealt with by their own militars and the 7 billion plus citizens of the world.

  7. Charles Norrie on said:

    In 1963, the Soviet leader Mr Krushhov was reported as saying of the Unites States “we will bury you”. It was a gross mistranslation of “we will overtake you” and nearly caused a crisis in US Soviet relations. For this reason the British Foreign Office and the SIS always requires telegrams to be translated using a standrad vocabulary so the sccidental or deliberate mistranslations cannot arise. Would that the US would learn this very simple rule.

  8. M. Ben Shmuel on said:

    I am An Israeli citizen, who is brainwashed daily with this type of distorted propaganda by our administration, especially the Prime minister, who is absolutely obsessed with Iran.
    Unlike you Americans, we are subjected to a real danger, that Israel would start pre-emptive war, as the German writer Gunter Grass wrote lately.
    Thank you for this important article.

  9. Diana Gwinn on said:

    F.G. Sanford… You are right on the money!!! I hope you don’t mind if I post your comment on facebook. You cut straight to the chase. I don’t know how these people, who so brazenly sacrifice the lives of countless human beings and cause so much suffering, sleep at night.

  10. novocaine38 on said:

    This reminds me also of Barbara Tuchman’ “Zimmermann Telegram” wherein the
    Germans supposedly made “secret” plans with Mexico and Japan (the “yellow
    danger”) in order to keep Wilson from entering the United States into WW1.
    Tuchman poinst out that Wilson had won his election largely on his anti-war
    stance and was then badgered into taking the US into the war, as the conflicting parties in 1916 had essentially accomplished a fullfledged
    “mutually assured destruction” on the battlefields of 1916 with only negotiations as a next step which would have brought the war to a forced
    end, as both parties had lost all their material and manpower potential to
    continue, except in the case of the Germans who had a total of 200 submarines not yet brought into the war, as there was still ambivelence about
    negotiated settlement at the conference table which the Brits by “hook or crook” where determined to undermine and avoid. The rest is history and Obama is now in a predicament akin to that of Wilson in 1916 and 1917…andrew herold, novocaine38, ahe1583521@aol.com, kopenhagen, denmark

  11. eCitizen on said:

    This lie was also repeated publicly by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper who has been called “Israel’s best friend.” by Netanyahu. Harper’s government voted in favour of Israel on a UN resolution condemning it for Operation Cast Lead, when even the US abstained.

  12. Hillary on said:

    “Iran” has stated that it wants “to wipe Israel off the map”.

    The above LIE has become an “AIPAC – neocon test” for all politicians.

    Say the Lie improves one’s chances of AIPAC/Jewish campaign money/support.

    i.e. survival in politics.

    Americans are a dumbed down sheeple who trust their MSM.

    Why was the following never reported ?

    ‘The Democrats had been wrong. All of the economic growth of the United States has been encouraged by wars.’
    G.W.Bush said it very clearly.

    http://thinkprogress.org/2010/05/28/argentine-prime-bush-war/

    “War on terror” is a hoax for perpetual “war”.

  13. Goatboyslim on said:

    I thought that the phrase that Ahmedinijad said was itself either a quote from, or a reference to, a 14th century poem. Also, I seem to remember that Dennis Kusinich attempted to have an accurate translation read into the Congressional record, but was not allowed to do so.

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  17. Claus-Erik Hamle on said:

    The real problem is that the Pentagon aims to achieve a disarming first strike capability according to missile engineer Bob Aldridge-www.plrc.org. The US Navy can track and destroy all enemy submarines simultaneously according to Bob Aldridge. Professor J. Edward Anderson: The deployment of anti-missile missiles in Eastern Europe is part of a first-strike strategy. According to Der Spiegel 49/2011 the US Missile Shield in Eastern Europe will be fully operational by 2020. This leads to Launch On Warning and Accidental Nuclear War. I´d like to recommend Risaralda, Caldas, Colombia. The living will envy the dead. Bloody fools in the Pentagon ! But it seems to happen now and then-www.mcremo.com

  18. VietnamWarVeteran on said:

    How and why does Obama continue to LIE anout Iran? – America is occupied Israeli territory – and as Ariel Sharon bragged: “Jews control America and Americans know it”.
    Our US Congress is controlled by Zionist Israeli-first TRAITORS to America ALL of whom continue to LIE and push for yet another war to benefit Israel NO matter how many young Americans must be sacrificed.
    EVERY Zionist-Jew member of AIPAC is a TRAITOR to the American people.
    Israel is NOT now and has NEVER been a ‘friend’ or any ‘ally’ of the US.
    NO ‘friend’ of the US would have deliberately attacked the USS Navy ship ‘Liberty’ in 1967 – even strafing the lifeboats in an attempt to kill every US sailor.
    Zinist-Jews are TRAITORS to every country they inhabit.

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