Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Islamic Republic of Iran held another Holocaust cartoon festival this month, inviting the usual despicable cast of characters. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assured the New Yorker that although the event would proceed, Iran would ensure that the “people who have preached racial hatred and violence will not be invited.” Evidently, Zarif believes there are Holocaust deniers who do not harbor “racial hatred.”
As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani once remarked to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the Holocaust — the question of whether it happened and the dimensions of the slaughter — is really “a matter for historians and researchers to illuminate.” Crimes against humanity are bad, Rouhani averred, as he quickly glided over the Nazis’ anti-Jewish malevolence to similar crimes committed today, leaving no doubt for a Middle Eastern audience that he was talking about Israel. Among Iran’s ruling elite, Holocaust denial and the accompanying conspiracies about Jewish power are omnipresent and diverse, but they all have strategic intent. Anti-Semitism is not only central to the regime’s identity; it’s also inextricably tied to its soft-power propaganda aimed at the larger Muslim world, especially Arabs.
Anti-Semitism was part of Iran’s inception. The revolution’s father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spent much of his life indulging it. In Khomeini’s rendition, the Jews, always untrustworthy in Islamic history, are surrogates of Western imperialism who have displaced Palestinian Muslims and even distorted Islam’s scriptural texts. Khomeini’s hatred toward Israel exceeded even his disdain for America. The United States was a pernicious, seductive imperial power. But it was America’s conduct, not its existence, that the mullahs contested. Israel, on the other hand, was for Khomeini an unlawful entity, irrespective of its actual policies and behavior. No peace compact or negotiated settlement with the aggrieved Palestinians could ameliorate this essential illegitimacy. Israel must be wiped off the map.
Since the ayatollah’s death, Tehran’s efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state have continued, no matter who among the ruling elite has had the upper hand. Whether it’s those aligned behind Ali Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor), the revolutionary pragmatists backing Rouhani or the Islamic leftists who once rallied behind the reforming president Mohammad Khatami, attitudes toward Israel and the Holocaust have remained constant. For them, Zionism is a racist, exclusionary ideology that should be opposed not just by Muslims but also by all who care about human rights. Iran’s propaganda insists that Zionism was imposed on the region by force of arms, sustained by bloodshed and perpetuated by craven U.S. politicians beholden to domestic Jewish groups. Khamenei has gone so far as to claim that to ensure the compliance of U.S. politicians, “these Zionist capitalists both bribe and threaten them.” Even more: These Jewish American overlords “have murdered some of their high-ranking and great officials.” Anti-Semitism in Iran is an Orwellian voyage of ideology, where fiery sermons and conferences calling for the annihilation of Israel and denying the Holocaust have become the sanctioned language of the Islamic republic.
In foreign affairs, this antagonism to Israel enforces the clerical regime’s claims to regional leadership, especially at a time when the mullahs’ ecumenical message to Sunni Muslims has been compromised by Iran’s role in provoking and sustaining sectarian warfare in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran’s anti-Semitic assault is one of the few rhetorical weapons the clerics can deploy that has broad popular appeal among Sunni Muslims. Arab leaders may envision agreements with Israel, but many of their constituents loathe the idea, especially in Egypt, which has a cold peace with Israel, and in Saudi Arabia, where royals unofficially flirt with Israeli officials in a great game to counter the mullahs.
In particular, Iran needs anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial conferences that brandish its Islamist credentials to compete against the Saudi propaganda machine, which is running full-throttle against the Shiites, depicting Iranians as Muslim heretics and Persian usurpers eyeing Arab lands. From their global network of pulpits and Arab satellite TV channels, the Saudis call the faithful against a rapacious Iran and its Shiite insurgents taking over the ancient seats of Arab civilizations in Baghdad and Damascus.
And the clerical regime’s anti-Semitism will grow worse as the rewards of the nuclear deal increase. The mullahs no longer have to worry how the regime’s hatred of Jews plays in the West — the buffoonish character of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is gone and sanctions are falling. The U.S.-educated Zarif is adept at handling Western officials and journalists. In his capable hands, Holocaust festivals become yet another reason to support Rouhani’s “moderates.” And Western opprobrium not reinforced with sanctions just affirms the correctness and utility of the mullahs’ anti-Jewish worldview. What matters most is the war for Muslim minds, and the clerical regime intends to exploit anti-Semitism for all that it’s worth.