Iran's 11th presidential election campaign is heating up, and Israel is becoming an inseparable part of the political debate. The prospective candidates, who will register in less than two weeks for the June 14 election, are busy not only with the "Little Satan" that threatens their country – they are also firing away at Ahmadinejad's campaign of Holocaust denial.
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Last week Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf – a regular candidate in Iran's presidential elections – claimed that Iran and the revolution were being harmed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declarations about the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust "a myth" and claimed that Jews are exaggerating Nazi atrocities to extort sympathy for Israel.
“We were never against Judaism; it’s a religion. What we opposed was Zionism," Ghalibaf said in an interview with the Iranian Tasnim news agency. "We’ve been the major supporters of Palestine for 30 years, but with the wisdom of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, no one could accuse us of being anti-Semitic. Suddenly, however, without consideration for the results and implications, the issue of the Holocaust was raised. How did this benefit the revolution or the Palestinians?"
"It became an excuse for our biggest enemies, the Zionists, and affected the goals of the Palestinians," Ghalibaf continued. "Defending the goals of the Palestinians is part of the principles of our foreign policy. Denying the Holocaust is not part of our foreign policy.”
Prospective candidate Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel – the former chairman of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament – has also criticized Ahmadinejad's statements about the Holocaust as unnecessarily provocative.
"There was no need for these statements," he said. "I did not support denial of the Holocaust in the way Ahmadinejad did. We have not have benefited by the denial of the Holocaust."
The Holocaust, he added, is a matter for historians, "and I cannot rule on the matter."
Last month it was Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, who publicly attacked Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad's term was rife, he said, with needless tension over issues that are sensitive to Europeans, the American public and the United Nations.
"We paid for it without having gained anything,” Boroujerdi said. "Why must the Security Council admonish us? Why must all European countries condemn us? What need was there for that?"
"I think this was a mistake. … The policy both at the time of Imam Khomeini and the Supreme Leader has been to maintain good relations with all countries," Boroujerdi said. But he added, "The United States is an exception to the rule because we do not have relations with them and they are hostile toward us. Of course the Zionist regime is another story since we even do not recognize it as a country."
These Iranian debate over Holocaust denial comes at a time when the presidential candidates are being careful not to offend Khamenei, whose endorsement they will be seeking. This indicates that Khamenei may actually be allowing the attacks on Ahmadinejad to continue, and that he is open to changing the public discourse in Iran regarding the Holocaust.
This may be more significant than just a matter of Holocaust denial becoming politically incorrect in Iranian politics. The attitude toward Israel may also change. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjan - who still has not announced whether he will be running in the coming elections - has said that Iran is "not at war with Israel." But while Iran would not initiate a war with Israel, he said, "If Arab nations wage a war, then we would help."