When Iran Says ‘Death to Israel,’ It Means It

Analysts too often assume that autocrats obscure the goals they wish to achieve. The historical record suggests that we should take them at face value.

A shadow is cast over the Israeli flag.
The Atlantic

About the author: Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, distinguished journalists, analysts, and activists argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin was unlikely to green-light an assault that could go wrong in so many ways and instead might be bluffing. They employed a variety of political rationales to explain away the military buildup and escalating rhetoric. At the core of each explanation lay a troika of errors: denuding an adversary of agency, engaging in mirror-imaging, and, perhaps most of all, projecting a separate and more palatable logic onto the grim reality painted by the words and actions of a foreign leader.

Many people who should know better assume that political leaders obscure the goals they wish to achieve or muddle the ideas that animate them, even though the historical record suggests the wisdom of taking them at face value. Clearly the world should have heeded Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism during his rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, and Osama bin Laden’s declaration of jihad against America in 1996.

Seen in this light, Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine offers an inflection point for policy makers, journalists, and lay observers to stop misjudging adversaries by disregarding what they have said plainly and publicly. Now would be a prudent time to survey where else invective from world leaders could trigger a calamitous conflict.

There may be no better example of this than Iranian leaders’ quest to destroy Israel.

Despite the sheer volume of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements emanating from the country’s two supreme leaders in the 43 years since the Islamic revolution in Iran, the notion that Tehran’s Islamist rulers seek the destruction of Israel has often been caveated, belittled, or politically recast.

Perhaps most famous is the case of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called for Israel’s destruction in 2005 when paraphrasing a line from the founding father of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Quite literally, Ahmadinejad said, “The occupying regime of Jerusalem must be disappeared from the page of time.” His quote became the subject of a translation controversy and political debate following its popularly rendered but more figurative translation as calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”—which not just American, but Iranian state-run English-language outlets employed.

While hawks and doves deliberated over the authenticity of the phrase wiped off the map, they glossed over the most important and operative term in both quotes. Ahmadinejad and Khomeini used the word bayad, which means “must,” giving their sentences a clear and commanding ethos. The quote contained no conditionality, and in Khomeini’s original statement, it was used to draw a sharp contrast between the policy of the new revolutionary government in Iran toward Israel and those of Muslim nations who sought normalization with the Jewish state.

Predictably, the dispute over verbiage obscured what could have been an important opportunity to see the connective tissue between generations of political elite in the Islamic Republic and their consistent views on Israel. Worse, the translation debacle needlessly divorced Ahmadinejad’s comments from his role as the president of a state that materially supports groups (and has only grown bolder about) seeking to expedite exactly what the conference he spoke at was titled: “A World Without Zionism.”

The incident remains instructive in the history of Western misunderstandings of the Islamic Republic because it shows how debates, even over a foreign language, can end up revealing more about outside analysts and their views than those whom they purport to understand.

The Ahmadinejad quote isn’t an isolated example, either. The Islamic Republic emblazons Death to Israel on banners in official processions, fires ballistic missiles against targets shaped like the Star of David, displays and flight-tests ballistic missiles with genocidal slogans against Israel in Hebrew, struck a mock-up of Israel’s nuclear reactor with drones and ballistic missiles in a military drill, and denigrates Israeli and American icons in military parades.

Some Iranian media outlets have even taken to calling the country’s medium-range ballistic missiles—all of which surpass known weight/range thresholds to be classified as strategic or nuclear-capable platforms—“Israel-hitting missiles” referring to the upper range of these projectiles, which is about the distance between Iran and Israel. Greater clarity still is provided by the name of the elite foreign-operations arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization: the Quds Force, with Quds meaning “Jerusalem” in Arabic.

The Quds Force serves as the central nervous system in Iran’s global terror apparatus and emerged from a hodgepodge of organizations with conflicting missions vying for control of Iran’s covert operations in the 1980s. Driving the point home about liberating Jerusalem, Iran marks Quds Day, a holiday created in the late ’80s by Khomeini to cement his regime’s anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian bona fides. Celebrated on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar, the day is filled with parades and fiery speeches against Israel.

Last but not least, the destruction of Israel is normalized in Iranian political parlance and is reinforced through a plethora of “Death to Israelchants, as well as by comments from military officials and clerics, by press releases and videos from media outlets, and, perhaps most damning, by the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even via Twitter. During his three-plus decades at the helm, Khamenei has continued and expanded Khomeini’s anti-Israel rhetoric and policies. Just two years after becoming supreme leader, Khamenei declared, “Our view regarding the issue of Palestine is clear and obvious. We believe the solution to Palestine is in destroying the Israeli regime. Don’t say that it can’t be done; there is no ‘can’t be done’ in the world. All the great mountains that serve as impediments to the movement of people can be moved.”

Supporting armed resistance has been a ubiquitous theme in Khamenei’s speeches on Israel. And as the individual most responsible for Iran’s foreign and security policy, Khamenei has lived up to his promise. Referring to Iranian support for terrorist groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza, in 2012 Khamenei proclaimed, “We explicitly state where we intervene. We intervened in anti-Israel cases.” In that same address, Khamenei also re-upped his belief that “the Zionist regime in this region is truly a cancerous tumor, and it must be cut and shall be cut.” Khamenei continues to call Israel a “cancerous tumor” that must be excised.

While it may be lost on some observers that the Islamic Republic believes it is charged with helping bring about Israel’s end, it is not lost on those in positions of authority in Iran, such as Major General Hossein Salami, who serves as commander of the IRGC. In 2019, Salami declared, “This sinister regime must be eliminated from the geographies of the world.” A slightly more figurative translation? Israel must be wiped off the map.

Seen from the perspective of Iran’s Islamist rulers, an anti-Israel stance has both strategic and ideational benefits. Clearly, it has helped Tehran compete for (and in more recent times, against) Sunni Muslim and Arab hearts and minds by claiming the mantle of champion of the Palestinian cause. In so doing, Persian and Shiite Iran has been able to punch above its weight against the established order in the Middle East. But to treat the revolutionary regime’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views as ornamental, or merely a veil for realpolitik or machtpolitik, misses the forest for the trees. Worse, it also risks making the same mistake as analysts did with respect to Putin: to not take the words coming out of a foreign leader’s mouth seriously, and in so doing, robbing an adversary of agency.

The leader most responsible for the ascendance of these views in Iran today is none other than the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini cut his teeth in opposition to Israel well before the 1979 revolution, just as much as in opposition to the U.S. and to the U.S.-supported shah of Iran. In 1963, mere months after the initiation of the shah’s modernization program, known as the “White Revolution,” Khomeini protested the policy from the pulpit in Qom. There he preached that Israel “wishes to seize your economy, to destroy your trade and agriculture and to appropriate your wealth leaving this country without.”

Predictably pushed into exile, Khomeini refined these views in a series of speeches that became the basis for his book Islamic Government. He declared: “If the rulers of the Muslim countries truly represented the believers and enacted God’s ordinances, they would set aside their petty differences, abandon their subversive and divisive activities, and join together like the fingers of one hand. Then a handful of wretched Jews (the agents of America, Britain, and other foreign powers) would never have been able to accomplish what they have, no matter how much support they enjoyed from America and Britain.”

Khomeini’s conspiratorial view about Israel being a tool of Western colonial interests has long been socialized across the Islamic Republic. In 2001, Khamenei opted to peddle themes beyond Israel’s illegitimacy to invoke soft Holocaust denial, claiming, “There is evidence proving that the Zionists had close ties with the German Nazis, and the exaggerated statistics that were released on the number of Jewish victims during World War II were aimed at drawing public sympathy and preparing the ground for the occupation of Palestine and justifying the Zionist crimes.” In 2002, Iran’s now-deceased Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as president for eight years (1989–97), declared, “The continuity of Israel depends on the interests of [the] Arrogance (U.S.) and colonialism, and as long as this base is useful and has value for colonialism, they will preserve [Israel].”

For those inclined to downplay this history and such statements as “cheap talk” masquerading in place of what really matters in foreign policy—hard power and action—the popular Persian idiom “How can hearing be like seeing?” will offer no solace.

The Islamic Republic has been turning its ideas into action since its very inception in 1979. Whether it be by hosting Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the revolutionary regime’s first foreign dignitary; inspiring groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad; supporting the second intifada through the Karine A affair, as well as the slaughter of Syrians by Bashar al-Assad’s forces because that nation occupies a vital part of Iran’s logistical land bridge in the Levant against Israel; or bolstering Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s rocket arsenals and production capabilities, the Islamic Republic’s anti-Israel policies amount to both statecraft and soulcraft.

Always intended for export, Iran’s Islamic revolution was and remains aided through Tehran’s skillful creation, co-option, and control of terror and proxy groups abroad. What in the 1980s appeared as an array of actors has now matured into a full-fledged alliance system benefiting from Iranian financial, political, and military support. This axis has its own vision of regional order wherein Israel does not exist, rival Muslim powers are cowed, and the American presence is routed or marginalized into irrelevance. While the axis threatens maritime navigation, launches projectiles at civilian centers, and baits and bleeds adversaries, the chief strategic dividends it offers Tehran are insulation from blowback and the masking of Iranian involvement so as to ensure that the regime can live to fight another day. Arming the axis allows Iran to target actors indirectly and without suffering consequences.

But just because Iran has been patient and works through proxies in its quest to bring about the end of the Jewish state does not mean its intentions are any less genocidal. Although much was made during the Ahmadinejad presidency (2005–13) about an irrational Islamic Republic seeking a nuclear bomb, trend lines from the past four decades of Iranian foreign and security policy show that one might have just as much, if not more, to fear from a regime that is means-ends rational, recalibrates in response to external stimuli, and imposes costs when the opportunity presents itself.

On Quds Day last year, Khamenei seeded the assertion that Israel and the “Axis of Resistance” are on opposite trajectories, with Israel facing a “downward movement” and the axis facing a “bright future” due to, among other factors, “an increase in defensive and military power, [and] self-sufficiency in building effective weapons.” One specific example Khamenei gave was the evolution of Palestinian long-range strike capabilities, an evolution that many analysts believe Tehran to be responsible for. “One day, Palestinian youths would defend themselves by throwing stones, but today they reply to the enemy with precision-guided missiles,” Khamenei said.

More broadly, the proliferation of Iranian proxy groups appearing on Israel’s borders is no accident, nor is the growth of their mortar, rocket, drone, and missile arsenals. These moves are designed to steadily reduce Israel’s policy options when contesting both Iranian and proxy military power. Over time, erosion of the regional balance aims to make the Jewish state believe that the path of least resistance will mean submission, or else.

A nuclear-armed Iran underwritten by a lethal proxy network like the Axis of Resistance would embolden the Islamic Republic to press its ideological mission as well as enforce any outcome. Under a nuclear umbrella, Khamenei might feel tempted to first force Israel to commit national suicide through a demographically stacked referendum. Khamenei’s website has even eerily termed this “the final solution.”

Raising the chance of nuclear use anywhere above zero establishes the grim possibility of the Islamic Republic acting on its stated principles. As Rafsanjani said in 2001, free of any reference to the logic of mutual assured destruction, “If one day the Islamic world is reciprocally equipped with the weapons that Israel has, on that day the Arrogance’s strategy will reach a dead end, because the use of one atomic bomb in Israel leaves nothing left, but in the Islamic world, there will only be damage.”

Still, there will be those who, even in the face of such consistent foreign-policy behavior and overt declarations, are likely to shrug their shoulders. For these observers, structure, and not agency, is the most important force in international relations, and therefore Iranian foreign and declaratory policy reads merely as an attempt to respond to perceived Israeli threats and is thus a reflection of the dog-eat-dog reality of Middle East politics.

Although these statements are the views and desires of the Islamic Republic’s political and military elite, they do not represent the broader Iranian population. For their part, the Iranian people are protesting and bringing the regime’s anti-Israel and revolutionary foreign policy into their crosshairs, chanting “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran”; “Palestine, Syria, make us miserable”; and “Forget Syria; think about us.”

Yet the transnational and Islamist nature of Iran’s governmental priorities, in contravention of the wishes and values of its citizens, is a design, not a defect, of the Islamic Republic. After all, Khomeini himself was hostile to the concept of nationalism as popularly defined, and said that “nationalist people are of no need to us; Muslim people are.”

For every anti-Israel utterance from the mouths of Iran’s Islamist elite, there is equal chapter and verse, if not more, said about America. “Death to America” is chanted alongside “Death to Israel.” American flags are burned alongside Israeli ones. Iran’s proxies target American military installations across the region with the help of the IRGC, and the IRGC directly harasses American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. And as is evident in both the Israeli and American cases, every opportunity afforded to the regime to safely snub or spite its adversary or to escalate against it without incurring serious retribution or ruin is taken.

Under sanctions pressure, Khamenei authorized Iranian diplomats to negotiate directly with America in 2013 by saying Iran needed to show “heroic flexibility” against an adversary. But in the face of unenforced sanctions throughout 2021 and 2022, Khamenei felt comfortable enough to make American diplomats sit in different rooms, or as some analysts have called it, at “the kiddie table,” amid talks to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal. Clearly, when the balance shifts, the regime grows more aggressive and is able to act on its ideological impulses.

Therefore, a coherent Iran policy, be it from Washington, Jerusalem, or any other capital finding itself the target of the Islamic Republic’s critiques, should begin not with putting words in the mouths of Iranian leaders, but rather with listening to what is being said and seeing what is being done.

After all, this is exactly the stratagem that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to employ against Putin when the secretary addressed the UN Security Council in New York this February. Say—“with no qualification, equivocation, or deflection—that Russia will not invade Ukraine. State it clearly. State it plainly to the world. And then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table,” Blinken said.

Would the Islamic Republic ever state plainly, clearly, and with no qualification that Israel must not be destroyed and that it does not wish death upon America? And then act accordingly? If you are laughing, it means you have been listening to Iranian leaders all along.