The official translation was wrong

On Friday, the soon to be inaugurated President Hassan Rouhani of Iran was reported to have made some very un-moderate comments about Israel. But then it turned out that the comments were not as bad as advertised.

Here are some tweets from Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran Bureau Chief of the New York Times tracking the story:

There are two especially notable remarks in these three tweets. The first is Erdbrink’s characterization of the just inaugurated President Hassan Rouhani of Iran as “mild.” The second is the phrase “erroneous translations.” With the first, Erdbrink lets us know his premise that Rouhani is reasonable. His reporting proceeds from that premise. To him, the story wasn’t what Rouhani said but the mistaken translations. And that begs the question: if the (semi-)official news services that had reported Rouhani’s remarks as “Zionist regime is a sore which must be removed” been accurate, would Erdbrink have taken care to get an accurate translation and report the story that contradicted his assumptions about Rouhani?

Later, Erdbrink’s story was combined with reporting from Jodi Rudoren, Iran’s President-Elect Provokes Furor Abroad With Remarks on Israel:
Attending an annual pro-Palestinian holiday in Iran known as Al Quds Day, a reference to the Arabic name for Jerusalem and an occasion in which Iranians march and shout “Death to Israel,” Mr. Rouhani told state television that “a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years,” a reference to Israel.

At least three Iranian news agencies appeared to misquote him as saying: the “Zionist regime is a sore which must be removed.” Later in the day they posted corrections.

Mr. Rouhani, who has sought to portray himself as a moderate, did not use the most inflammatory anti-Israeli invective sometimes heard from other Iranian leaders, most notably Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called Israel a cancerous tumor, a virus and an aberration that should be expunged from history.
Hassan Rouhani
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Still the Times'
favorite moderate Iranian. Credit: Wiki Commons

Then the report goes to say how Israel reacted, while emphasizing that Israel’s reaction was based on the erroneous translation.
When told later that the original translation had been wrong, and that the videotape showed Mr. Rouhani had in fact not referred directly to Israel or said anything about removing the “sore,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office was unmoved and seemingly uninterested in nuance. “We stand by what we say,” said his spokesman, Mark Regev. “The remarks attributed to him we think, we are sure, that represents his true outlook.”

As for the videotape, Mr. Regev asked: “Is it the whole recording? Is it part of the recording?”
“The Iranians have the ability to move things,” he said. “We know there’s a consistent pattern of Iranian behavior of saying things and then backtracking. The Iranians have ways inside Iran to censor their message. They have the ability to control their press.”
Erdbrink and Rudoren here established their skepticism of the Israeli claims while crediting Rouhani for differing from his predecessor. Think for a moment, who originally mis-reported the remarks? Here’s the AP:
A semiofficial Iranian news agency initially quoted Rouhani as calling Israel a “wound that should be removed.” That prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to retort that “the real face of Rouhani has been exposed earlier than expected.”

But the news agency, ISNA, later said it was a misquote, confirmed by state TV footage of Rouhani’s comment reviewed by The Associated Press. Netanyahu issued no statement on the corrected version.
But the problem of Rouhani’s actual comments is really just splitting hairs. Context, in this case, is everything. He made them in reference to Qods Day. Qods Day isn’t simply a fun holiday that’s “pro-Palestinian.” The reporters even acknowledge that part of the festivities is shouting “death to Israel.” Rouhani didn’t say that these sentiments are overstated and not to be taken literally. He seemed perfectly comfortable with them.

To be sure, Qods Day was conceived by Ayatollah Khonmeini in support of the Palestinian cause, but it was also to condemn Israel as an illegitimate occupier. Erdbrink is a good liberal who, no doubt, thinks that occupation must end for there to be peace in the Middle East. But the shouts of “Death to Israel,” should have clued him in. In the case of Qods day “occupation” equals “existence.” Nothing in Rouhani’s actual comments suggests that he believes otherwise.

Robert Mackey, at the Lede wrote in conclusion:
The rapid spread of these false reports that Iran’s new president had explicitly called for Israel’s destruction echoed an incident in 2005, when the country’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was incorrectly quoted as saying that Israel “must be wiped off the map.” As The Lede explained last year, Mr. Ahmadinejad had, in fact, used a metaphorical turn of phrase in Persian that has no exact English equivalent, made no mention of a map, and might have intended his comment to be more of a prediction than a threat.

That said, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the far more powerful cleric who rules Iran, have repeatedly predicted that Israel will cease to exist and openly support militant groups that are pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state. In some cases, they have even used language similar to what was falsely attributed to Mr. Rouhani on Friday. “The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off,” Iran’s supreme leader said in a speech last year. “And it definitely will be cut off.”
Mackey has a long history of justifying anti-Israel sentiments. For him to write as he “explained last year” regarding Ahmadinejad’s comments reveals his bias.

Joshua Teitelbaum showed how there was no room for misinterpreting the former Iranian president’s remarks, either as spoken or in context of his history. In What Iranian Leaders Really Say about Doing Away with Israel (.pdf) Teitelbaum writes:
What emerges from a comprehensive analysis of what Ahmadinejad actually said – and how it has been interpreted in Iran – is that the Iranian president was not just calling for “regime change” in Jerusalem, but rather the actual physical destruction of the State of Israel. When Ahmadinejad punctuates his speech with“ Death to Israel” (marg bar Esraiil), this is no longer open to various interpretations.
Honest Reporting quotes Tim Marshall of Sky News, who sums things up nicely:
However, anyone who follows the linguistic circus act in the wider Middle East knows that everyone understands what is meant by “Zionist entity” or “Zionist regime” – it’s just that some people are happy to be disingenuous and pretend they don’t.
It is only Westerners who wish to ascribe a non-existent moderation to Rouhani who are splitting these hairs. Iranians know what he meant. It’s important to recall that Rouhani won because “the regime wanted him to win,” and the only thing that’s likely to change is his tone, not the substance of Iranian policy.

Last week, the Twitter feed of Supreme Leader Khamenei, to whom Rouhani answers, considered all of Israel to be “occupied.” Rouhani himself has recently supported Hezbollah, the terrorist group supporting Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on dissent. To look for reasons to call Rouhani “moderate,” is to ignore his history and the history of the regime he loyally serves.

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