Open Zion

08.05.13

Pro-Israel Group Attacks New York Times' Iran Correspondent

The story of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani's misquote—which Benjamin Netanyahu ran with, even after it was corrected, to build a case against Iran—deserves a coda. I thought the most curious response by a Washington pro-Israel group came from the Israel Project (TIP), an organization dedicated to disseminating "detailed and accurate information about Israel and the Middle East" to media and others. Unlike Netanyahu himself, whose office suggested Rowhani's misquote "represents his true outlook," the Israel Project—and the right-wing pundits it relied on—just misread the key portions of the correction. Here's their version of events, at length, as told in a widely-distributed newsletter on Friday afternoon, well after international media the world over had corrected the misquote:

A Twitter-driven media controversy erupted this morning over an Al-Quds Day speech given by incoming Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in which the president-elect described Israel as a "wound" on the "Muslim body." [...] Original reports published by state-linked Iranian outlets indicated that Rowhani also called Israel a "wound"—also translated in some places as a "sore"—that needed to be "removed." The stance would echo the one expressed yesterday via the official Twitter feed of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But other Iranian state-linked outlets later clarified that Rowhani merely limited himself today to calling the Jewish state a "wound," without explicitly calling for its removal. The distinction caused some journalists to declare that Rowhani was actually "remarkably mild, compared to others in Iran," an effort at interpretation that was openly mocked by foreign policy analysts. Other observers were even more blunt, accusing some journalists of "manufacturing another Iranian regime mistranslation controversy."

What TIP completely misses here is the distinction between what Rowhani actually said, and the original misquote (by Iranian news agencies, picked up by international press). The notable difference in the accurate translation was not, as TIP said, that Rowhani "merely limited himself today to calling the Jewish state a 'wound,' without explicitly calling for its removal." It was that he didn't mention Israel at all—nor the "Zionist regime," which is how Iranian government officials frequently refer to the Jewish state. Instead, Rowhani, in the accurate quote, said the "wound" (sometimes translated as "sore") was "the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the dear Quds." The Israel Project can't tell the difference between Israel and the occupation.

The best way to underscore the difference between the misquote and the actual quote might be to look at a similar remark from none other than then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. As Nima Shirazi pointed out, in May 2008, Obama was interviewed by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Here's a bit of the exchange:

JG: Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas? 

BO: 
No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy.

Obama went on to discuss the "lack of a resolution to this problem," but an ungenerous reading could still find he was talking about Israel generally. That is, the isolated remark reads very much like Rowhani's.

(Let me briefly add that I have something of a history with both the Israel Project and its head, Josh Block, the former AIPAC spokesperson who, before joining TIP, accused me and some colleagues of anti-Semitism because of our writing on Iran, and tried to get us all fired.)

As I noted previously, there was some ambiguity in the accurate wording of Rowhani's statement: Is his "Palestine" the historic land by that name, which today constitutes both Israel within the 1967 lines and the occupied Palestinian territories? Rowhani wasn't clear. That said, his ambiguity was definitely "remarkably mild, compared to others in Iran." That observation, issued by the New York Times's Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink and derided by the TIP, rings eminently true. The foreign policy analyst cited by TIP, Jonathan Schanzer of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who "openly mocked" Erdbrink made the same mistake TIP did. Schanzer emphasized that the distinction between the misquote and Rowhani's actual comment was about "whether Rowhani said 'wound' or 'sore' and what, if anything, he proposed to do about it."

The last charge TIP related hardly bears responding to, except to mention that the entire issue with Netanyahu refusing to back down was that this was a misquote, not a mistranslation. The reference to a mistranslation stems from an incident regarding Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In that case, there was indeed a mistranslation, though the actual rendering was only slightly less noxious than the errant one. That, though, raises the question: why, if the truth is bad enough, attack everyone who just wants to be as accurate as possible? The same might be said of TIP's reaction to Erdbrink's comment that Rowhani's statement was "remarkably mild, compared to others in Iran." Considering the sad state of Iranian politics—where anti-Semitism is commonplace (which the Times has reported on extesnibely)—Erdbrink's observation ring absolutely true.

It's strange for group ostensibly dedidacted to distributing "accurate information" to attack a correspondent for one of the world's foremost media outlets—the New York Times—for accurately covering something the same way other major, reputable news organizations did, and accuse him and others of "manufacturing" a controversy. The Israel Project, though, seems to hold narrow view of "accurate."