The US-Iran sound bite showdown
They just can't keep from going at each other's throats.
Just in time for President George W Bush's special guest appearance at the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, his ultimate nemesis, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, unleashed another rhetorical shot across the bow as his own way of "celebrating" the anniversary.
And once again the substance of what Ahmadinejad actually said risks being lost in (mis)translation.
According to Agence France Presse (AFP), quoting the Fars news agency, Ahmadinejad, speaking in the Iranian northern province of Golestan in one of his popular provincial tours, said, "They [Israel] must know that the nations of the region hate this counterfeit regime. And if there is the slightest chance, they will uproot this counterfeit regime."
Reuters had a much more bellicose take. According to its translation, "They [Israel] should know that regional nations hate this fake and criminal regime and if the smallest and briefest chance is given to regional nations they will destroy it."
It is hardly a secret that for a substantial majority of Arab populations in the Middle East - but not for their unrepresentative regimes - an Israel driven by Zionism should not have a place in the region. Thus Israel would qualify as a "counterfeit" regime that should be "uprooted". But this does not mean that Arabs - or Persians - are in favor of the actual physical destruction of Israel.
The Associated Press's (AP) version of the quote is even more apocalyptic. It reads: "The criminals assume that by holding celebrations ... they can save the sinister Zionist regime from death and destruction." The AP copy notes, "Ahmadinejad used an Arabic word, ismihlal, than can also be translated as destruction, death and collapse." An Arabic expert contacted by Asia Times Online said ismihlal means basically "to break down in smaller parts". That's not exactly nuclear annihilation.
We are back to the situation of Ahmadinejad's 2005 alleged threat to "wipe Israel off the map". What he actually said then, quoting his personal icon, the leader of the Islamic revolution in 1979, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was that the "regime occupying Jerusalem should vanish from the pages of time". Yes, this means regime change - as much as the Bush administration always wanted regime change in Tehran. It does not mean a call for a nuclear holocaust.
Now, the fact remains that the Reuters translation - distributed to countless newspapers all over the world - will inevitably be seized by the Bush administration and assorted armchair neo-conservative warriors as yet more evidence that Iran wants to "destroy" Israel - muscling up the case in Washington for a preemptive US attack on Iran.
This week, Philip Giraldi published a groundbreaking story on the American Conservative, according to which the US National Security Council (NSC) has agreed - in principle - on a cruise missile strike against an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force training camp near Tehran. This would be a sort of "warning" to the Iranian leadership. The only NSC member to urge for a delay was allegedly Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Giraldi carefully noted that Bush "will still have to give the order to launch after all preparations are made". But the decision to attack seems to have been made.
Juicy extras are inevitable when it comes to Ahmadinejad's runaway tongue at ease in cozy provincial settings. What AFP translates as "the Zionist regime is on the verge of dying ... throwing a birthday party for this regime is like having a birthday party for a dead person", Reuters prefers to package as "the Zionist regime is dying. The criminals imagine that by holding celebrations ... they can save the Zionist regime from death".
But in this case it was up to APTN, the video arm of AP, to provide the meatier translation: "The criminals wrongly suppose that by holding celebrations, coming to the occupied lands of Palestine and supporting these criminals, they can save the resented Zionist regime from death, annihilation and from the claws of Palestinian fighters."
This is as contextual as what Ahmadinejad had said a day before, in a press conference in Tehran. According to the Deutsche Presse Agentur, the German news agency, he said, "This terrorist and criminal state is backed by foreign powers, but this regime would soon be swept away by the Palestinians." And he added, "As far as the regional countries are concerned, this regime does not exist." This is better in terms of framing the anger expressed by Ahmadinejad - as well as the theocratic leadership in Tehran, and most of the Arab world for that matter - towards Israel as a direct consequence of Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians.
It is interesting to note that for the Iranian press, the references to Israel were not even on the map. Press TV, for instance, went with the headline "Ahmadinejad: Tyranny falling from grace", stressing other parts of the president's speech, for instance when he said that "tyrannical powers have fallen from grace and the sound of their cracking bones can be heard".
Whatever Ahmadinejad said, Bush, for his part, totally stuck to script. Even before his arrival in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Bush commented that "the message to Iran is that your desire to have a nuclear weapon, coupled with your statements about the destruction of our close ally, have made it abundantly clear to everybody that we have got to work together to stop you from having a nuclear weapon. To me the single-biggest threat to peace in the Middle East is the Iranian regime." Once again, a call for regime change.
To add fuel to the fire, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal - in synch with Washington - started accusing Iran of backing a Hezbollah coup in Lebanon. That is predictable, considering that the Hariri clan in Beirut is a Saudi client. But nothing could be further from the truth. Last week, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah was blunt: "Had we wanted a coup, they [government leaders] would have woken up to find themselves in jail, or [thrown) in the sea."
Nasrallah was cunning enough to see it would be politically impossible for Hezbollah to control Beirut - even though they proved they could do it, on the ground with weapons, in less than 24 hours. Nasrallah also said last week, "If they told us to come and take over, we would say 'no thank you'."
There is no evidence the celebrity sound bite showdown will abate any time soon. Bush appears to want war - to bolster his "legacy". Ahmadinejad, too, might want war to bolster his faltering administration. American and world public opinion can only hope the clock does not run out before a possibly upcoming changing of the guard in the White House.
Just as the rhetoric between Tehran and Washington was once again at red alert levels, former Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Edwards stepped into the ring to announce his endorsement of Democratic Senator Barack Obama in the US presidential race - sucking out the hate waves. "Walls" inside and outside the US may soon come tumbling down, as Edwards hinted in his speech. But the fact remains that the hardline faction in the Bush administration centered around Vice President Dick Cheney still has over five months to fulfill its agenda of regime change in Iran. And the danger is Ahmadinejad will do absolutely nothing to dissuade them.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. He may be reached at email@example.com.