Rohani’s statement, its distortion, and what it all means (UPDATED)


Today, Iran marked Quds day, its annual rebuke to all things Zionist generally, and Israel’s control of Jerusalem specifically.

ISNA, the semi-official Iranian news agency, quoted President-elect Hassan Rohani — much touted as a moderate — as saying the following:

The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to make the following statement:

Rohani’s true face has been revealed earlier than expected. Even if they will now rush to deny his remarks, this is what the man thinks and this is the plan of the Iranian regime. These remarks by President Rohani must rouse the world from the illusion that part of it has been caught up in since the Iranian elections. The President there has changed but the goal of the regime has not: To achieve nuclear weapons in order to threaten Israel, the Middle East and the peace and security of the entire world. A country that threatens the destruction of the State of Israel must not be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction.

So, Netanyahu was right: His unspecified “they” did indeed “rush to deny his remarks.” Except not in the ya-gotta-understand-what-the-idiom-means kind of way that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s line about wiping Israel from the map is sometimes explained away. But rather, in a he-just-didn’t-say-it kind of way.

Here’s the video, for Farsi speakers, and a translation posted on Twitter by Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, which I’ve confirmed with other Farsi speakers as essentially correct:

The day of Quds, which is one of the mementos of the Imam [Khomeini], may he be admitted to God’s paradise, is the day that the people display the unity of the Islamic world against any form of tyranny and aggression. In any case, in our region, a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years, in the shadow of the occupation of the Holy Land of Palestine and the dear Quds. This day is in fact a reminder of the fact that Muslim people will not forgot their historic right and will continue to stand against aggression and tyranny.

There is no “remove.” And it’s not entirely clear what “sore” he’s talking about: Is he being hyper-specific, referring to the Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam known as Haram al Sharif? Or is he referring generally to Israel itself? Or to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank?

Those are questions for Rohani. Here are some for others:

–Why did two Iranian government-tied news agencies so egregiously misrepresent what he said? This might be a a situation of one lazy reporter’s screw up, followed by another even lazier reporter plagiarizing the screw-up. But it begs the question: How pervasive is the notion of “removing” Israel in Iran that a reporter can walk away and think, “Well that’s what he probably meant.” (Notably, Press TV, another government-run agency, quickly reported the misreporting.)

–Why did Netanyahu’s office not wait to check the video? There’s no shortage of Farsi speakers in Israel. Especially considering the import of Netanyahu’s implied “illusion” jibe at President Obama and a number of congressional Democrats. This is a substantive shot across the bow at an ally. Wouldn’t you want your ducks in a row in that case?

–Will the prime minister’s office walk this back? (UPDATE: It did, in a statement to the BBC and in removing tweets that reflected the original statement.) Further UPDATE: An official in Netanyahu’s office says the office now stands by its earlier statement, while seeming to acknowledge that it was based on misreporting. “We were responding to what was reported widely,” the official told me. “The Iranians have a consistent track record of saying things and then denying them. We have no doubt that the remarks attributed to Rohani reflect his current thinking.”

–Will others who have taken up the misreporting, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a number of pro-Israel groups?

–Finally, circling back to a question for Rohani (or at least those who have studied him most closely): Is this, as Erdbrink suggests, a sign of his relative moderation? Is it significant that a president-elect, on the one day when Iranians are encouraged to focus their fury on Israel, doesn’t say much at all?

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