‘Are you pleased with the current condition of the world?’ (Mr A to Mr B), or What did Ahmadinejad actually say?
Very few Western news sources have published or analysed the recent letter by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the US President George W. Bush. (Now available from various sources including here.)
According to Mike Whitney at the Information Clearing House, the media have dismissed the letter as “rambling and scolding”, an obvious attempt to discredit its author, but in fact the letter shows that Iran would like to open a dialogue with the United States so the current standoff can be resolved peacefully. The Bush administration, however, has brushed aside Iran’s gesture leaving many to believe that another war is imminent.
The letter, he says, contains none of the fiery rhetoric normally attributed to Ahmadinejad to make him appear a menace. This is not quite true, since it does indeed contain quite a bit of religious discourse, but then Ahmadinejad is writing as an Islamic believer to a Christian believer (both of whom believe they have a direct line to the deity). On the other hand, he does not spout the kind of jihadist language associated with fundamentalist terrorists, and Whitney is quite right to ask if it could be ‘that everything we’ve heard about him in the press is just baseless libel to make him look like a threat or a racist?’
The letter covers the questions of Iraq and of Israel, Latin America and Africa, the aftermath of 9/11, including the scandal of Guantanamo, and more. He asks why the Western media intensify the climate of fear and insecurity – ‘Is that a service to the American people?’ – and laments the hype which has replaced ‘the correct dissemination of information and honest reporting’. And he challenges Bush directly. The people, he writes, will scrutinize our presidencies:
Did we (manage) to bring peace, security and prosperity for the people or insecurity and unemployment? Did we intend to establish justice or just support special interest groups; and by forcing many people to live in poverty and hardship, did we make a few people rich and powerful…? Did we defend the rights of the underprivileged or ignore them? …Did we bring the world peace and security or raise the specter of intimidation and threats? Did we tell the truth to our nations and others around the world or did present the opposite of that? Were we on the side of the people or the occupiers and oppressors?
People the world over, he writes, are unhappy with the status quo, they feel insecure, they’re disgusted with increasing corruption, they protest the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, rich countries and poor. They are angry about the attacks on their cultural foundations and the disintegration of families, and dismayed with the fading of care and compassion. He concludes that ‘liberalism and Western style democracy have not helped realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of liberal democratic systems.’
Well, if you put it like that, it seems pretty unanswerable. What we need to understand here is the difference between democracy and actually existing democracy.
Reading the letter it strikes me that the Western media’s slighting response is of a piece with the way they treated the speech by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to the UN last September: both of them are much too close to the bone in the way they lay out what Ahmadinejad calls ‘the undeniable contradictions that exist in the international arena’. Both presidents are not surprisingly thoroughly demonised by the media, who readily succumb to disinformation and even lies about them and their regimes. No doubt the same treatment is about to be meeted out to Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
The media, says Whitney, describe Ahmadinejad as a Muslim fanatic who ‘allegedly’ wants Israel ‘wiped off the map’, but it’s now in dispute whether this is what he actually said, and we discover that mistranslation here becomes part of disinformation. It’s not even certain that he used the phrase that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’ (as reported by the New York Times on 30.10.2005) – it depends which version you read. Two German commentators, Anneliese Fikentscher and Andreas Neumann, also cite another version in which he says ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’ According to Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ahmadinejad was quoting an old speech of Khomeini’s, which ‘does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all’:
The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.” It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.
In other words, there was no implication of ‘driving the Jews into the sea’. Not that this is any consolation to the Zionists, or their sponsors (the infamous lobby in Washington), because Ahmadinejad’s complaint is that Israel is an anomalous state which has displaced and now oppresses the country’s previous inhabitants. Many countries throughout history, he says, have been occupied, ‘but I think the establishment of a new country with a new people, is a new phenomenon that is exclusive to our times’. And then, he continues, ‘A regime has been established which does not show mercy even to children, destroys houses while the occupants are still in them, announces beforehand its list and plans to assassinate Palestinian figures, and keeps thousands of Palestinians in prison.’
This argument has been obscured by the charge that Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier. Here, according to the Iranian press agency IRNA, is what he said in last December’s speech:
” ‘If the Europeans are telling the truth in their claim that they have killed six million Jews in the Holocaust during the World War II – which seems they are right in their claim because they insist on it and arrest and imprison those who oppose it, why the Palestinian nation should pay for the crime. Why have they come to the very heart of the Islamic world and are committing crimes against the dear Palestine using their bombs, rockets, missiles and sanctions.’ […] ‘If you have committed the crimes so give a piece of your land somewhere in Europe or America and Canada or Alaska to them to set up their own state there.’ […] Ahmadinejad said some have created a myth on holocaust and hold it even higher than the very belief in religion and prophets […] The president further said, ‘If your civilization consists of aggression, displacing the oppressed nations, suppressing justice-seeking voices and spreading injustice and poverty for the majority of people on the earth, then we say it out loud that we despise your hollow civilization.’ ”
Probably Ahmadinejad was taken aback by the vehement condemnation of his earlier remarks on the subject, and has tried to backtrack a bit. Not just Ahmadinejad. When I visited Tehran for the Fajr Film Festival last January, and people there discovered I was an anti-Zionist Jew, they inevitably asked me my opinion of his pronouncements on the Holocaust. I told them that while I entirely opposed Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the Holocaust had claimed many of my father’s family as victims and I couldn’t remotely agree with questioning its historical occurrence. And for Iran to do so was bad news and would only increase its demonisation in the West. Whereupon several of them said that what was reported in the West wasn’t exactly what he said, but what he exactly he did say they couldn’t quite explain.
As for sending the Jews of Israel somewhere else, this only made me think of Philip Roth’s masterpiece, Operation Shylock, in which an imposter claiming to be Roth himself causes a furore in Israel by advocating ‘Diasporism’ as a solution to the problems of the Middle East, whereby the Jews would go back to Europe where they came from. A truly black comedy.
I agree with Whitney that one should have no illusions about Iran, a country that ‘represses its people, treats its women like second-class citizens, and applies the death sentence to homosexuals’. Recent cases of concern include the repression of Tehran bus drivers seeking to form a trades union, the oppression of Sufis, and the detention of the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo. But this is complicated, since Iran internally consists in various factions vying for power and authority among the mullahs, the politicians, the revolutionary militia and the populace. A few days ago, Ayatollah Khamenei vetoed a decision by Ahmadinejad to allow women into sports stadiums, after the move upset the clerical establishment. However, none of this gives the USA the right to interfere. It doesn’t justify Congress allocating ‘millions of dollars to incite violence and foment revolution in the hopes of tightening America’s imperial grip on the region’ (as Whitney puts it). It certainly doesn’t give the USA the right to even threaten military action on the pretext of Iran’s alleged intention to develop nuclear arms. I’m not saying this is what the Iranians intend, despite their protestations – I don’t know. What I do know is that Iran feels threatened. Just look at the previous blog to this one.
Addendum: Ahmadinejad on the art of martyrdom (video)
Ahmadinejad details his plans for Jews (video)