Standing in his customary grey sport coat, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bellowed to an audience of hundreds of students at the annual ‘World Without Zionism’ conference in Tehran in October 2005. Less then a year after being elected Iran’s sixth president, what he said at this conference brought him into the international spotlight, turning him into a hero for some and a burnable effigy for others. He uttered those infamous words that have clung to his name ever since: ‘Israel must be wiped off the map.’ It was with those words that the bellicose president of Iran managed to get his fellow heads of state to stop taunting him by his previous cognomen of Ahmadine-who? and start eyeing him suspiciously, mouthing the new nickname of Mah-nnuke Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad probably doesn’t regret that his remarks landed him royalties from parodies on T-shirts and comedy sketches, rivaling only Britney Spears’ shaved head and child negligence. However, he might lose sleep over the fact that he didn’t spend the extra buck getting a top notch translator, because according to Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the President of the Global Americana Institute, not only does the idiom of wiping something off of a map not exist in Farsi, but the correct translation of the statement should read, ‘This regime occupying Jerusalem must [vanish from] the page of time.’
The Middle East Media Research Institute, an organization that provides Arabic and Farsi translations, provided a similar translation: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’ The major distinction between the translations is that in the corrected form, Ahmadinejad is talking about the termination of the Israeli regime and not the Israeli people, the difference between political speech and hate speech.
In fact, later in the same speech, Ahmadinejad clarifies his position regarding Israel, stating that the issue of Palestine will only end when a national referendum is held and a popular government is elected, responsible to all the inhabitants, a position he reiterated in an interview with Time magazine. That same year Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei similarly stated, ‘We have suggested that all native Palestinians, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews, should be allowed to take part in a general referendum before the eyes of the world and decide on a Palestinian government. Any government that is the result of this referendum will be a legitimate government.’
Ahmadinejad wasn’t militaristic, but he was politically imprudent and failed to check his words for potentially out-of-context misinterpretations. Just ask Senator Larry Craig how quickly a flexible stance on interpretations can leave one surprised and with their pants down.
So amid all the hearsay and confusion regarding Ahmadinejad’s stance on key political issues, and the need for clarification and communication to thwart the excessively militaristic overtones from Washington, it was surprising to see the hostility directed at Columbia University for providing him a speaking platform. Columbia University was opening a dialogue with, love it or hate it, the head of state of a regionally large and powerful country