A mistranslation of a quote earlier on Friday about Israel by Iran’s incoming president Hassan Rouhani sent some hawkish Israel watchers into a tailspin. The Iranian government’s response to it has also led some observers to wonder if the new regime in Tehran is trying to change its usual harsh rhetoric toward the Jewish State, and the West.
A semi-official Iranian news agency reported on Friday that Rouhani had said at a rally that Israel “has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to respond, claiming that the remark shows that Iran’s new president — despite hopes that he is someone the West can deal with on Iran’s nuclear program and other issues — is the same as the old boss:
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.
But video of Rouhani’s remarks later emerged showing that he never said Israel needed to be “removed.” In fact, Rouhani was “merely calling the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands ‘a sore,'” as the New York Times reports:
Attending a celebration for the annual pro-Palestinian holiday in Iran known as Quds Day, named after the Arabic name for Jerusalem, Mr. Rouhani, said: “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.”
JTA’s Rom Kampeas writes. “I’ve confirmed with other Farsi speakers” that this translation is “essentially correct.”
What’s even more significant, the original report, according to Reuters, “was swiftly repudiated by Iranian state media, which said unidentified news agencies had distorted Rouhani’s remarks,” thus signaling that perhaps the botched story might conflict with a potential new messaging strategy from Tehran. Indeed, as Kampeas asked, “Is this, as [the New York Times’ Thomas] 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?”
Experts and current and former officials making the case for diplomacy with Iran have argued in recent weeks that Rouhani’s election — the most moderate candidate available to Iranians — presents a favorable opportunity for the United States to reengage with the Islamic Republic for a deal on its nuclear program. Those trying to increase pressure on Iran, even at the risk of undermining the diplomatic process, don’t seem to be convinced, and judging by the rush to condemn Rouhani’s mistranslated remarks, it doesn’t appear they want to be.
Hours after reports that Rouhani’s comments had been mistranslated, the official Twitter account of Netanyahu’s Likud Party office continued to criticize the incoming Iranian president for the original mis-reported remarks. Those tweets were later deleted. An Israeli spokesperson in a statement to BuzzFeed would only speak about another Twitter feed (@IsraeliPM), saying “No tweet about Rouhani comments was removed.”
And while a spokesperson for Netanyahu told the BBC that the Prime Minister’s statement reported above “was based on Reuters report w/ erroneous translation of #Rouhani,” Netanyahu is apparently standing by it, with a spokesperson telling Haaretz’s Barak Ravid: “We are standing 100% by our statement regarding Rouhani. We knew the Iranians would deny but we are not walking it back.”
JTA’s Kampeas also picked this up: “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.'”
The New York Times has since updated its story and deleted a portion quoted above — “merely calling the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands ‘a sore'” — without explanation.