In early May, organizers in Tehran will stage the Second International Holocaust Cartoon Contest. Given the horrors of the Holocaust — in which the Nazi regime systematically killed more than 6 million Jews, as well as millions of Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents and other undesirables  — and current fears about a rise in global anti-Semitism, an event with that name ought to raise myriad red flags.

An exhibition will feature some of the 839 pieces of "artwork" submitted as part of the contest by artists from more than 50 countries, reports Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Its stated goal is to provoke Western sensibilities — particularly as a response to satirical cartoons of the pr0phet Muhammad published in numerous European outlets in recent years. The "contest and exhibition intends to display the West's double standard behavior towards freedom of expression as it allows sacrilege of Islamic sanctities," Fars reports.

But this isn't just about Iranian anger with publications such as France's Charlie Hebdo, which has published cartoons depicting the founder of Islam.

The first such contest, held in 2006, featured toxic motifs of Holocaust denial — a hobby horse of Iranian hard-liners. It also aired long-standing grievances in the Middle East over Israel's treatment of Palestinians living under occupation. The victorious cartoon in 2006, drawn by a Moroccan, depicted Israel setting up a separation barrier around the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem; a black-and-white rendering of a concentration camp covers the wall.

A prompt for this year's contest, organized by the Tehran-based House of Cartoons and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Complex, asks questions such as these:

"If the West says that freedom of speech has no borders then why don't they let historians and experts properly research the Holocaust?"
"Why should the Palestinian people pay for the Holocaust?"

In February, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, panned the planned Iranian event.

"It ridicules one of the darkest events in human history, and it cheapens the death of millions of Jews who were murdered," he said in a statement. "The horrors of the Holocaust are still fresh in the collective memory."

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made Holocaust denial a key theme in his anti-Israel rhetoric. On his way out in 2013, he lauded his spreading of the message that the Holocaust was a myth: "We put it forward at the global level. That broke the spine of the Western capitalist regime," he said, in a testament to his own delusions.

Ahmadinejad's successor, the more moderate Hassan Rouhani, was compelled to backtrack. In an interview with foreign media soon after coming to power, Rouhani described the Holocaust as "reprehensible and condemnable" but didn't indicate whether he sided with mainstream historical opinion on the scale of the genocide.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif echoed his boss, pointedly tweeting that "the man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone."

Zarif and Rouhani are now in the middle of negotiations aimed at finalizing a deal on Iran's controversial nuclear program. A successful accord would help end years of deepening Iranian isolation, including providing much-needed relief from crippling economic sanctions.

But an event as provocative as this cartoon exhibition won't endear Iran to an already skeptical West.

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