I know Iran is in fairly dire economic straits, but if the mullahs want to wage an effective propaganda war against the West, the least they could do is fork out a few rials to supply their various mouthpieces with some dictionaries of English idioms. Because when you're trying to chastise your enemies in their native tongue, nothing blunts the impact of spittle-laden invective like getting your figures of speech mixed up.
In an editorial in today's English-language edition of the state-controlled Kayhan newspaper, under the headline 'The White Elephant', Kian Mokhtari writes:
Is there something wrong with the world's sense of what is happening in Iraq? Do we have to continue to ignore the white elephant of the illegal US occupation of Iraq and the resulting civilian deaths of around one million people, in the same way that we have stood by and watched Palestine ripped to pieces by the occupying Zionist regime?
The US is increasingly concentrating its firepower against the Iraqi forces opposed to the US-led occupation of their country while sending the Iraqi army out to fight Al-Qaeda operatives. The US is busy killing Iraqi patriots sick to death of US murder, rape and torture of Iraqi civilians, while Maliki's government has been lumbered with the task of funding the United State's so-called fight against terror.
'Illegal US occupation'… 'one million civilian deaths'… 'Palestine ripped to pieces'… 'murder, rape and torture'… the New York Times should sign this guy up under some international leader writer exchange programme. Ultimately, however, the polemic is diminished because the author made the schoolboy error of confusing his elephant expressions.
The phrase Mokhtari was grasping for was, of course, 'elephant in the room', 'elephant in the living room' or some variant on that saying, meaning something that's impossible to ignore (my personal favourite is the British 'elephant in the drawing room'). 'White elephant' describes something whose cost exceeds its usefulness to the point that it becomes a liability.
We shouldn't be too hard on Mr Mokhtari. His English is clearly very good, and it's not uncommon for English speakers to confuse the two expressions – there are warnings to that effect on the respective Wikipedia entries. And there are those who would argue that Iraq has become a white elephant for the US, although that's clearly not the context in which Mokhtari was using the phrase (similarly, many supporters of US efforts in Iraq would say that Iran is the elephant in the room in the context of the continuing instability in the country).
But the whole point of a hostile regime addressing its opponents in their own language is that it's supposed to have an unsettling and corrosive effect. It says 'we know you', ' we understand you', and 'we're not embarrassed to share our ideology with you'. And to political leaders it says 'we're so confident that your people will believe our propaganda and turn against you that we're appealing to them directly'.
And if, after the first line of what's supposed to be some paradigm-shifting rhetorical flourish, all the reader is thinking is: 'He meant elephant in the living room, not white elephant – idiot!', then it's hard for them to take what follows seriously – particularly when it's so over the top that it verges on the comical anyway.
At the moment the war between the US and Iran is one of words, rather than weapons. And if you can't get a simple phrase right, there's a danger that when you say perfectly sensible things like
Islamic Republic of Iran recently apprehended a group of terrorists responsible for the Shiraz mosque bombing atrocity. They had been trained by the UK, US and Zionist agents. Among items discovered in their hideouts were: poison gas and chemical agents to cause maximum human casualties at other venues on their to-do list.
people might not believe you.