Iran's nuclear program: 4 things you probably didn't know

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program, which some in Israel and the US say is meant to produce nuclear weapons, continue to run high in the West. Most recently in a Iranian New Year's sermon, Ayatollah Khamenei promised that Iran would respond "on the same level" as any attack against it.  But even as Israeli and Iranian officials take turns rattling their sabers, several key points remain misunderstood.  Do the US and Israel believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program?  Did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really promise to "wipe Israel off the map"?  The answers may surprise you.

1. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

Alexei Druzhinin/Government Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

One frequently proffered explanation for why a war with Iran is needed is because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants Israel "wiped off the map," and that with a nuclear weapon, he could.  But some argue that Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement was mistranslated from less incidiary language.

Ahmadinejad's alleged condemnation of Israel came at a "World Without Zionism" conference in Tehran in Oct. 2005, in which he was quoted by an English-language Iranian news site as saying "Israel must be wiped off the map."  But as several analyses of the original Farsi statement show, this appears to be a mistranslation.

Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project noted in 2007 that Ahmadinejad "never... uttered the words 'map,' 'wipe out,' or even 'Israel'" in his statement.  Rather, he argued, the translation should have been that "this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time."  (Both The Washington Post and The Atlantic came up with similarly variant translations.)

This is a key difference, Mr. Norouzi argued, because Ahmadinejad used the "vanish from the page of time" idiom elsewhere in his speech: when describing the governments of the Shah of Iran, the Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein.  While war and revolution were involved in the three regimes' collapse, none of them, Norouzi argued, were "wiped off the map."  Rather, they underwent regime change.  This suggests in turn, he said, that Ahmadinejad was calling for regime change in Israel, not nuclear genocide.  Juan Cole, another critic of the speech's translation, compared Ahmadinejad's statement to Reagan-era calls for the end of the Soviet Union.

Critics note that the translation is a matter of semantics and that regardless, they show Ahmadinejad's hostility to Israel.  Ahmadinejad did not help the case for mistranslation when in subsequent interviews he refused to clarify whether he truly meant that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth.  But the ambiguity of the words and the indications from context suggest that "wiped off the map" is not the best translation for his statement.

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