Judith Winther, December 2006

Ever since entering office on August 3, 2005, Iran's president Mahmud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly issued statements denying the Holocaust as an historical fact. In February 2006, the Persian-language daily Hamshahri launched an international competition for cartoons about the Holocaust, and in late August the Iranian government inaugurated an exhibition of cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust.

Denial of the Holocaust is not a new phenomenon in Islamic Iran. Senior members of Iran's political and clerical elites, first and foremost Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i, have practiced it before. However, this phenomenon has certainly witnessed a qualitative jump under Ahmadinejad.

What lies behind Iran's preoccupation with the Holocaust?

Holocaust denial in Iran is one manifestation of a broader fusion between Iran's vehement anti-Zionist position and traditional anti-Jewish themes in Iran's national and religious culture. Ever since the 1979 Revolution, Iran espouses the most radical anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist position in the Muslim Middle East. This tendency is epitomized in the depiction of Israel as the "Little Satan," a "cancerous tumor" that has to be removed, and in the official slogan that "Israel must be wiped out" (Isra'il bayad mahv shavad).

Iran's anti-Zionism emanates from two central foundations in the teachings of all Islamist movements in the Middle East, which combine traditional Islamic elements with modern nationalist and Third Worldist concepts. The first views Zionism as the culmination of a Judeo-Western political and cultural onslaught on the Muslim world, which has caused deep crisis and malaise in Muslim countries in the modern era. The second is the revival of traditional anti-Jewish attitudes in Islamic culture, which regard the Jews as hostile to Islam since Islam's inception. These traditions do not view the Jews as a nation, but rather as a dispersed religious community destined to subordination and subjugation by the Muslims since their rejection of the message of the Prophet Muhammad. Both these Islamic and nationalist elements occupy central stage in the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ideological founder and leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and have guided the Iranian government ever since the 1979 Revolution.

Iran's Islamic ideology regards Zionism as the most overt manifestation of Western imperialist designs against Islam. Both Khomeini and current leader Khamene'i have stated that "the occupation of Palestine [by the Jews] is part of a satanic design by global domineering powers," perpetrated by the British in the past and being carried out today by the United States, to weaken the solidarity of the Islamic world and to "sow the seeds of disunity among Muslims."

Having rejected any moral or historical justification for Jewish or Zionist claims, Iranian leaders view the Holocaust as a myth invented to create a guilt complex in the West and forge a sympathetic public opinion in support of the establishment of the State of Israel. Some even argue that without the Holocaust, Israel might not have existed at all. Supreme Leader Khamene'i set this line in a speech made in April 2001, which maintained that the "Zionists had exaggerated Nazi crimes against European Jewry in order to solicit international support for the establishment of the Zionist entity in 1948." Evidence even exists, he claimed, that as part of this conspiracy a "large number of non-Jewish hooligans and Eastern European thugs were forced to migrate to Palestine as Jews."

Hence, the premise behind Holocaust denial is that refutation of the "lie" would undermine Israel's international status and legitimacy. Such denial also seeks to present Israel as an unscrupulous state that resorted to whichever means it can in pursuing its interests and in acquiring funds and international support. Iran's instrumentalist usage of the Holocaust is also evident in the Iranian official spokesmen and media's frequent comparisons between Zionism and Nazism, and between the "Gestapo-like" policies of Israel and those of Hitler. Mohsen Reza'i, secretary of the powerful Iranian Expediency Council, has predicted that Zionism would ultimately meet a similar fate as that of Nazism: destruction.

Iran's Holocaust denial is a manifestation of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. Under the pretext of Zionist fabrication of the Holocaust, Iran distorts and denies Jewish history and deprives the Jews of their human dignity by presenting their worst tragedy as a scam, even though the Holocaust has nothing to do with Zionism per se. In its effort to delegitimize Zionism as an ideology based on lie and deceit, Iran chooses to focus on the most salient and tragic event in modern Jewish history one which was directly related neither to Zionism nor to IranianIsraeli relations. The source and motivation of this enmity is indigenous, stemming from religious and nationalist sentiment. The arguments, however, are borrowed from Western sources, producing a symbiosis between European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and between traditional and modern motifs. While the Islamic regime in Iran generally rejects Western cultural influence as an anathema to authentic Islamic culture, it has not hesitated to borrow Western anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish themes in the service of its causes.

Ahmadinejad's advocacy of Holocaust denial, then, is not a new or uniquely personal obsession of one man, but more an intensification of prevalent themes in Islamic Iran's ideological discourse. However, as Ahmadinejad seeks to restore the regime's revolutionary goals and ideals that had weakened in recent years and to advance Iran's popularity among its Middle Eastern neighbors, he has chosen anti-Zionism and Holocaust denial as two principal pillars of his policy.

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