Ever since its debut six years ago, the groundbreaking counter-propaganda piece Rumor of the Century has continued to circulate worldwide. It’s a highly unusual phenomenon – a political artifact from the Bush era which should be completely dated and forgotten, as alive and relevant as ever. What’s more, the story of its evolution and mysterious staying power is a saga unto itself. So, to round out my trilogy of exposés on this everlasting subject, I thought I’d mark this anniversary with a retrospective, plus additional commentary.
I was never particularly interested in writing that article.
In fact, by the time of its publication, the speech in which Iran’s infamous “wiped off the map” meme originated (said to be a genocidal threat to physically annihilate Israel and kill all of its inhabitants) was about 15 months old. For some time, I sincerely believed that a correction and phasing out of mainstream discourse were inevitable. Yet it simply would not go away. I could hardly comprehend the level of irresponsibility, and the deafening silence from those who ought to be – but weren’t – questioning it. Not only was it not being properly challenged, but virtually everybody – including all major and minor international media, the world’s most prestigious and authoritative scholars, the most preeminent and powerful leaders on the planet – were obsessively repeating or referencing this gross misinterpretation of Iranian rhetoric. Some were even gratuitously embellishing it.
I finally completed it, and, in search of a wider audience, began submitting it around. It was almost universally ignored or rejected. Yet through viral propagation, mere ripples would soon swell into an enormous tidal wave. Its influence quickly became so overwhelming, with so many quoting, citing and linking to it, that those formerly indifferent publications were literally forced to acknowledge it.
It’d be difficult to overstate the massiveness of this piece. Hardly a day goes by without it being passed along somehow, somewhere. It’s been translated into numerous languages, been the focus of discussion in newspapers from Ireland to Bangkok, and had a tangible effect on much of the mainstream media’s reporting.
Seriously, in terms of ubiquity, longevity, and demonstrated influence, it may be one of the most widely distributed articles ever.
The main reason it took hold, though, is that it effectively addressed a subject of great importance that almost no one dared touch – put simply, it filled a need. And because this controversial issue never dies, neither does the article. The other reason it became the definitive text on the topic is that every facet of its structure and content, to the letter, was totally calculated.
DEVISING THE TITLE
I needed a fairly succinct title – the first thing anyone sees – which suggested its contents without sounding lame. “Wiped off the map” had by this time already become so associated with Ahmadinejad, that I didn’t think the title even needed the word Israel or Iran in it. Yet rather than simply have the title directly spell out its purpose, i.e. ‘They didn’t say that!’, I came up with this ‘dual function’ technique (read on...).
This whole thing, in its elaborate absurdity, brought to mind a global version of the silly rumors best associated with adolescence. Like that quaint old game of Telephone, (aka Chinese Whispers, Grapevine, etc.), the original meaning would become increasingly distorted the more it was passed around. Yes, it was a misquote, a mistranslation, a breakdown in communication, a public relations and diplomatic debacle...but I needed something shorter and catchier and “rumor” was an exceptionally apt term.
This wasn’t just any rumor, though, this was the Mother of all rumors. It’s hard to find historical parallels in which a singular case of misunderstanding spread so widely, so quickly, and with greater life or death, history-altering ramifications than this one (Khruschev’s famously misread “We will bury you” line being the most obvious example). Hyperbolic terms like “Trial of the Century” and “Crime of the Century” have been used to label particularly sensationalistic news cases for – well, over a century. Amazingly, “rumor of the century” had, according to my research at the time, remained completely unclaimed. Hence, I had a title: “WIPED OFF THE MAP” – The Rumor of the Century.
As mentioned, the title had a twofold purpose. The article needed to be found easily, especially through word of mouth. As the phrase “rumor of the century” was so uncommon and unattached to any previous works, people searching for it would immediately get my article. All these years later, people still look for it by that title, and many spread it onward simply by telling others, “Google Rumor of the Century” – exactly as I envisioned.
INTRODUCING THE TOPIC
Though the opening paragraph stated the article’s purpose plainly, it also contained the rather cocky declaration that I was about to “prove” my assertion that Iran was misinterpreted. This is a crucial principle: rather than “arguing” a case for this or that, make it undeniable. The idea is not to seek the reader’s trust, but rather to shun it. Proof transcends trust. All I was doing was pointing the way, by providing the tools for readers to engage critical thinking and unravel the puzzle for themselves. I wanted to provoke skeptics to try to prove me wrong, and then discover that they simply couldn’t. That’s far more effective than “spinning” something out of recognizable shape or simply trying to be “persuasive”.
You can persuade others to believe a falsehood, but you cannot prove one to be true.
There were so many illogical aspects to the prevailing narrative. To start with, it was no secret that Ahmadinejad’s words were actually paraphrased or quoted from Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980’s. Though initial press reports acknowledged this, that fact soon got lost in all the noise. Yet it seemed important to convey that the Islamic Republic’s position towards Israel had remained constant ever since its inception. Anti-Zionism, like anti-Americanism, was an early pillar of its manifesto, and a regular feature of its propaganda and rhetoric. ‘Qods Day’ (Jerusalem Day) observed each year, was instituted immediately after the revolution, with a new postage stamp issued annually for the state-sanctioned occasion. This regime has never recognized Israel.
The point: since Khomenei’s pronouncements were decades old, why the sudden uproar? What was so new about these particular verbal attacks, so indistinct from all the “Death to Israel” slogans and other venom years prior?
During the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era, Israel, in addition to the United States, was found to have been selling arms to Iran. Why would Israel deal weapons to a regime seeking its destruction? Why the delayed reaction to Khomenei’s words?
To demonstrate how far off the wrong translation was, I made a point of showing the conspicuous absence of three of the alleged main words – wiped, Israel, and map. The ‘Israel’ part is inconsequential, but the rest seemed pretty significant to the distinction between calls for the collapse of a regime and the nuclear annihilation of an entire country. In the years since, some of those opposing this account have nonetheless conceded that the words said to have been uttered, while intended to threaten Israel’s physical destruction, were quite different. In this instance, though, both the words and their meaning were violated.
Another irony, which I covered in the sequel is that MEMRI, a pro-Israel outfit which monitors inflammatory and anti-Semitic material in Arab and Iranian media, produced a basically accurate translation, fully contextual, and with no “wiped” or “map” in sight. Yet even those who championed MEMRI’s work were silent on the matter of why they, of all people, would differ so strongly on this now legendary “quote”.
Amazingly, many out there still seem unable or unwilling to grasp this concept called nuance. One common response to the corrected translation is that “vanish from the page of time” is just as bad as “wiped off the map”, so it changes nothing.
For the last time: the Soviet Union crumbled. Nobody ‘wiped it out’. The apartheid regime in South Africa is long gone. South Africa is still there. Clear?
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
Clarifying the “wiped off the map” sound bite was actually of far less significance to providing context for those words. Everyone knows how context can change everything. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was misquoted on the extravagant DC memorial intended to honor him, the context, not the actual words, were what really mattered.
In this case, Ahmadinejad, via Khomenei, was comparing the supposed inevitably of the collapse of the Zionist regime occupying Jerusalem with the fall of, among others, the Pahlavi dynasty in their own country! Hence, if “vanish from the page of time” was some sort of martial slogan, then it would not make any conceivable sense to equivocate the accomplished demise of the Shah of Iran with the future demise of Israel. Iran wasn’t “wiped off the map”, see?
As important as reading the quote in context with the entire speech is, many remain mesmerized, like moths swarming a street light, by the “quote” alone. Unfortunately, this characterization includes many lawmakers, Presidents (like Barack Obama), Prime Ministers, prestigious thinkers (such as the late Christopher Hitchens) and others afflicted with acute confirmation bias.
THE MISQUOTE ORIGINATED IN IRAN
When the “wiped off the map” line first entered the public consciousness via news of “The World Without Zionism” conference in 2005, those reports indicated that they took those quotations from IRNA – the state run Islamic Republic News Agency, roughly equivalent to a way more amateurish version of whitehouse.gov in America. Naturally, one of the first things I did was check to see if that were true. And sure enough, it was. Yet as I detailed, in other reports on their web site, transliterations of the quote were inconsistent. Just imagine – had the media selected one of those instead, that world famous line might have been “The Qods occupying regime must be eliminated from the surface of earth”. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though, does it?
Some regarded the fact that Iran had been responsible for the mix-up to be a revelatory detail. Yet all I had really done was confirm the mainstream media’s claim. It was only ‘new’ in the sense that I actually bothered to see if this story checked out.
Later on, people debating the topic pointed to a far more damning article on the web site of IRIB, another department of Iran’s state media. This article not only used “wiped off the map” in the body of the piece, but included it in the title! I actually hadn’t seen that one until after I wrote the article, but it wouldn’t have changed it. Some think it seals their case – ‘See – they say it themselves!’ Yes, those excerpts by IRNA and IRIB were very clumsily translated. Iranian officials have repeatedly stated that they do not intend to attack any country – though such clarifying remarks generally fall on deaf ears. In addition, as I found when replying to Congressman Steve Rothman’s rebuttal of my media critique Caught Red-Handed, other areas of IRIB’s reporting completely contradicted the notion that Iran wanted to wipe out Israel.
THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
How does anyone ‘know’ that Iran said Israel should be wiped off the map? From the media, of course.
Forming a kind of punchline to the piece, I demonstrated how an IRNA quote was quite deliberately altered by the Associated Press. What made this so profound is that when the media first attributed the ‘map’ quote to IRNA, at least they weren’t lying about it. This time around, the IRNA piece they were relying on used “disappeared” and “vanish” instead, so AP simply changed it to “wiped out” and still attributed it to IRNA! Not only that, they used the fake “wiped out” phrase in the headline, the sub-headline, and the first sentence. Absolutely incredible.
I also mentioned that, a few minutes after their 2006 CNN interview, Anderson “Keeping Them Honest” Cooper indicated that Ahmadinejad had just expressed his desire to wipe Israel off the map. CNN’s own transcript shows that no such statement was made on the show.
Check it for yourself.
THE CLOSING STATEMENT
There are many ironic and hypocritical statements to choose from with Ahmadinejad, but “History shows us that oppressive and cruel governments do not survive” was too good to pass up. Using his own words against him in this full circle, ironic fashion was a way to promote regime change in Iran, without war or foreign intervention.
TRUTH AND VALIDATION
It’s a thankless job, clarifying the rhetoric of despots, and opening yourself to accusations of being, if not pro-Iran, at least some sort of an “apologist”. That helps explain why, whether the subject is Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, or what have you, so many remain silent when tensions are high and preposterous fantasies are bandied about. Resistance to truth, of course, is nothing new.
All throughout history, prevailing sensibilities dictated that one shouldn’t speak the truth if it is an unpopular truth, might give “comfort” to the enemy, or fails to conform to a pre-accepted narrative or understanding of the world. “The world is round”, after all, was once a controversial stance. Truth was a recurring theme in the work of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, who once wrote that the truth was too ‘bright’ to view directly, and should be introduced in an angular, slow dissolve, or else its potency might “blind” its beholders. Circle around the truth slowly, she was saying, if you want people to internalize it. The truth can be unsettling, inconvenient, overwhelming...the ultimate taboo. “The truth shall set you free”, quoth Jesus in the Bible.
“Truth”, said Emily Dickinson, “is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.”
Rumor of the Century may have been quoted in the U.S. Congress, but there was a time when few wanted to touch it. Now, articles in The
Washington Post, The
Atlantic, and The Christian Science Monitor all refer to and align with its narrative, while numerous books from Spain to Tel Aviv cite it.
What was once considered an extreme fringe position, has since been confirmed by people like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Larry King, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, Congressman Ron Paul, former Senator Mike Gravel, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and many others. Need more validation on the issue? Ask Iran experts like Dr. Trita Parsi (an authority on the Iran-Israel-U.S. dynamic), journalist Shirin Sadeghi, author/professor Reza Aslan, multi-lingual Middle East historian / professor Juan Cole, professor/analyst Muhammad Sahimi, or writer/analyst Hooman Majd (who once did a stint as Ahmadinejad’s UN interpreter).
Naturally, the Israeli government is well aware of Rumor of the Century. Knesset member and Likud party chairman Danny Danon was compelled to acknowledge it (and failed miserably to refute it) in his new book Israel: The Will To Prevail. Perhaps most notable of all is the admission by Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor on Aljazeera TV in April 2012, who quite correctly explained: “They didn’t say ‘we’ll wipe it out’, you are right, but ‘it will not survive, it is a cancerous tumor, it should be removed’. . . . [They say] ‘Israel is unnatural, it will not exist, it is on the verge of collapse’.”
New York Times and Israel’s Ynetnews covered this, not surprisingly, it was virtually ignored by the media at large.
Logical fallacies abound. Nothing in their history suggests that Iran would be willing to sacrifice itself for the sake of ‘destroying’ Israel, and it would hardly serve the goal of Palestinian liberation to obliterate their natural homeland. Besides, razing Jerusalem, also regarded as a holy land for Muslims in addition to Christians and Jews, would surely do little to win over the neighborhood. Even if Iran had such aims, loudly pre-announcing those intentions – against the strongest military power in the region, prior to achieving nuclear mastery – would amount to just about the dumbest military strategy in history.
The idea that Iran would repeatedly deny a nuclear weapons program while simultaneously threatening to nuke another country is also, shall we say...unconvincing.
Though figures like Premier Netanyahu would differ, the myth of an irrational Iran is not a universal one, even in Israel. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has said that Iran is “very rational”, while Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz calls Iran’s leaders “very rational people” (rational, in this context, means not suicidal). Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, former IDF Chief of Staff, has said that Iran does not pose an existential threat, a position also held by Israeli intelligence veteran Efraim Halevy, who maintains that no country is capable of destroying Israel.
Another charge that has been made repeatedly is that Iran intends to “kill all the Jews”. OK, there’s plenty of of Jews living in Iran...are they killing them?
IRAN’S ONE STATE SOLUTION
The simplest summation of Iran’s official position on Israel-Palestine is three words – not ‘wipe them out’, but one state solution. Their suggestion – a national referendum on the matter. In short, Israel would be voted, not bombed, out of existence. Feigning graciousness and restraint, Iran promises to accept whatever decision the Palestinians make, as if it weren’t a foregone conclusion.
Now, the idea that Israel would ever agree to conduct, much less obey such a referendum is as preposterous as the notion that the dictatorship in Iran would accept a referendum on their illegitimate rule. Iran surely knows that, but agitating for Israel’s demise has everything to do with political maneuvering, not justice. Consider who’s talking: one of the world’s leading human rights abusers, a regime which, for over three consecutive decades, has engaged in persistent political and social repression, torture, false imprisonment, forced confessions and public executions in their own homeland.
Why would they care about the suffering of Palestinians?
Championing the Palestinian cause serves two main purposes for the Islamic regime – distracting from its own abuses, domestic woes, and other shortcomings, and winning over the Arab street. Iran’s struggle for hegemony in the region constitutes a serious rivalry with the US-Israel alliance; anything that undermines the status of their enemies is a win on their balance sheet. Likewise, the unfolding humanitarian crisis at the hands of the murderous Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s closest ally, remains of minimal concern.
With or without the participation of Iran, the question of Zionism remains an old and contentious one. When the United Nations created Israel in 1947, not a single neighboring country in the Middle East voted in favor of it. By 1975, a UN resolution (supported by, among many others, the Shah’s pro-U.S. regime in Iran) determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”, though it was revoked in 1991. Martin Luther King, Jr., a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, was staunchly pro-Israel, though Gandhi himself had argued decisively against Zionism, as did Gandhi’s contemporary, Albert Einstein. Even among the Jewish diaspora, there isn’t unanimity on the matter of Israel.
WHY QUESTION THE HOLOCAUST?
Since the triumph of the Zionist movement is connected with the tragedy of the Holocaust, questioning that history is, in their deluded view, a useful component of their propaganda in delegitimizing Israel. The rhetoric can be uneven, however. In a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2008, President Ahmadinejad referred to the “survivors of the Holocaust” four times.
Naturally, calls for the end of Israel, coupled with ignorant and callous rhetoric about the Holocaust, evokes painful memories of Jewish persecution.
The belief that others may seek to ‘wipe them out’ or “push them into the sea” is deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche, as with a state that has struggled for regional acceptance since its inception. Wiping Palestine off the map has yet to resolve this quandary.
Trashing the Holocaust is a good measure of the desperation and shamelessness of the increasingly isolated Iranian government. Iran has also claimed that it is the most democratic country in the world, unaffected by strict international sanctions, and its people are all free and happy. Evidently, there’s just about nothing they won’t say.
Meanwhile, Israel and the United States continue to engage in illegal war, occupation, drone attacks, targeted assassinations, “enhanced interrogation” and other atrocities while breathlessly insisting that Iran, an NPT signatory which has attacked no one, is a “threat to the entire world”.
We live in a world filled with lies. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels once told of “The Big Lie”:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
That quote is world famous. And yet there’s no proof he actually said it.