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Iran and Israel: Lost in translation?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterates controversial statements calling for an "end to the Zionist regime," leading different news services to translate his words in different ways, some making them sound more belligerent than others. The Real News Network Senior Editor Paul Jay speaks to Babak Yektafar of Washington Prism to discuss the meaning of the statements.

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: US President George Bush arrived in the Middle East on Wednesday for a five-day tour of the region. He landed in Jerusalem, where he took part in celebrations surrounding the 60th anniversary of Israel’s creation. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reacted with a searing warning to Israel, which has elicited international scrutiny over the exact meaning of his words. To discuss the latest comments about Israel from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we’re joined from Washington by Babak Yektafar, editor-in-chief of Washington Prism. Welcome back, Babak.

BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Thank you for having me.

JAY: Early Wednesday morning in the city of Gorgan, Iran, just outside of Tehran, President Ahmadinejad, speaking to a crowd of supporters, had this to say:

(CLIP BEGINS)

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The Zionist regime is dying. The region’s nations hate this fake and criminal regime and if they find any opportunity, they will root out this fake regime.

(CLIP ENDS)

JAY: The subtitling that we showed you came from a translation provided to us by Associated Press. Reuters translate it like this: [text on screen] "given the briefest chance, to regional nations, they will destroy it"—"destroy it" clearly meaning the regime, the Zionist regime. Some of the publications seem to stretch it to the destruction of Israel. This reminds us of 2005, when President Ahmadinejad made another speech that was translated around the world in two very different ways. Most of English media heard a translation saying that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth, whereas an Agence France-Presse translated it and others translated it as saying the Zionist regime is doomed to disappear. So I guess what I’m asking you here is there’s two very different camps of translating what Ahmadinejad is saying. One is, you could say, a somewhat observer’s voice, in grammatical terms a more passive voice: the Israeli regime is doomed; the Israeli regime will collapse. But another translation is far more active, which is to destroy the regime; sometimes it gets, more often than not in American media, as destroying Israel. So can you tell us what in fact is Ahmadinejad saying?

YEKTAFAR: Well, first of all, as you know, Paul, one of the difficulties of dealing with language, be it language used in the Middle East or English or any other, is these words, the nuances of the words, the context within which these words are being used, the word that he used yesterday in his speech in Farsi is the word ["ree-shih-KAN"], which literally translates into uprooting or pulling out from the roots the physical entity that’s being uprooted. You also mentioned the phrase or the word that was used in 2005, which started this whole issue. Again, that’s the word—he used the word ["math"], which given the context, given as to how it’s being used, it means disappearance. And he at the time meant, and all throughout, I believe, has maintained that he is essentially talking about the physical state, physical borders of the state of Israel, and the government, or the regime, as he mentions, "the fake regime" he often uses. And I think in a lot of ways not only Ahmadinejad himself but the hierarchy of Iran’s Islamic republic have tried to portray that this does not mean that they want to wipe out the Jewish population or anything like that. They constantly refer to the Jewish minorities in Iran and the representation that they have in the Iranian Parliament and so on and so forth. They’re always as careful, as careful as they can be, to make sure that the reference is to the existence of the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, the whole issue.

JAY: Now, the Iranian government does not recognize the state of Israel.

YEKTAFAR: No, they don’t.

JAY: Ahmadinejad’s made it clear he doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the state or the borders of that country.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly.

JAY: But it’s one thing not to recognize it, and it’s quite another to say you’re in some active way going to destroy it, which is what we keep hearing over and over again from the White House and from most of the media. In terms of what Ahmadinejad is saying to Iranians in Iran, what is the real meaning of what he’s saying?

YEKTAFAR: He is approaching it in two ways. I don’t think I have heard, read anything that specifically portrays this as some sort of attack by Iran against the state of Israel. I think a great deal of reaction that we’ve seen actually is because of the fear that the Islamic republic has of a possible attack by Israel, and this has escalated with the United States being there. What Ahmadinejad has portrayed the situation is more of not a direct attack by Iran, but encouraging the people in some sort of an uprising, parallel to the whole idea that, again going back to the whole justice issue and the way he feels about the Shiite hidden Imam whose return is going to herald the end of the world and, you know, justice to the world and all that, that if the will of the people and some sort of an uprising is there among the neighbors, among the oppressed people of Palestine, among other Arab nations, and so on and so forth then Israel has no chance, *and it will be destroyed.

JAY: *But clearly Ahmadinejad’s language often is very provocative. He’s not a fool—he knows how this is going to play in international public opinion. He knows what organizing a Holocaust conference is going to play out in world public opinion. To some extent, he doesn’t care, he wants to send that message, or is he just completely focused on Iranian public opinion and it doesn’t matter too much to him how it plays out internationally?

YEKTAFAR: Well, a big part of it is the way he is focused on the Iranian internal politics, and that to the extent that he wants to have a system, essentially, or he wants the Islamic republic to go back to a kind of system that he believed made the Islamic republic the way it is, (A). And (B), a lot of it again comes from the fact of the mistrust that he has and a great deal of people, the ones, the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, the mistrust that they have of the western world, and the way that the western world has treated Iran, as well as other countries in the Middle East. And, again, going back to the issue of Israel in the speeches that he has, that’s his thing, that the state of Israel—and he calls it a fake regime—is there at the insistence and backing of other criminal powers, and usually this means the United States and Great Britain.

JAY: Now, people in the press and certainly the American government government portray Iran rather monolithically, at least the rulers of Iran. Ahmadinejad represents a very specific faction within the Iranian ruling elite. Is the kind of provocative rhetoric that he uses, does it represent the supreme leader? Does it represent people like Rafsanjani? How unified are they around this kind of positioning?

YEKTAFAR: That’s the interesting thing about Iranian politics and the dynamics of the Iranian politics. There is no such directive, as far as I have observed and I can tell, by the supreme leader that this is how it should be done. However, there are groups here that are at play in trying to get the nod from the supreme leader. Remember, the supreme leader has never essentially taken a specific position in regards to foreign policy, even domestic policy. He essentially acts as an arbitrator, and he’s very comfortable doing that. So when people like Ahmadinejad and people who think like him come up and say things of that nature, he has a tendency of seeing how does it play? How does it play internally? How does it play externally? If he’s really unsatisfied, he will tell them to stop, you know, and clamp down, or he mobilizes other forces there to say things contrary to what Mr. Ahmadinejad has said. And we’ve heard things from Mr. Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator, who’s insisting that, you know, we should start negotiating with the West and the United States, or Mr. Rafsanjani, who says that this kind of rhetoric and talk is not beneficial to the future of Iran, and all it’s going to do is that it’s going to invite trouble from, you know, various forces that are surrounding us.

JAY: Is Iran actually a credible threat to Israel? Or is this really all about Hamas and Hezbollah?

YEKTAFAR: Well, you have to realize all this talk about—I’ve said it many times—about Iran being this power or emerging power, there really isn’t much there that tells me that Iran is a power that can be in a conventional war, that can have that kind of a power.

JAY: Babak, we’re going to end the section here, and we’re going to start a part 2 interview and discuss just what is Iran’s role in the region and its relationship to Hezbollah, Hamas, and particularly what’s going on in Lebanon now. Please join us for part 2 of our interview with Babak Yektafar. Thank you.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.