On Monday, I invited Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to visit Berlin's Holocaust Memorial.
Salehi was addressing a packed audience at the German Council on Foreign Relations, delivering a peculiarly titled speech, "Iran's Role in Regional Peace and Balance of Power." Peculiar, because it is Iran which is supplying weapons, soldiers, and tactical support to Syrian President Bashar Assad (whose regime has murdered upwards of 60,000 people over the past two years) and because it is Iran which arms the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas that destabilize Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, respectively.
"Your president is a Holocaust denier," I said, "and your government has hosted a Holocaust denial conference." In light of these facts, I asked, would Salehi be willing to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to see the memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in downtown Berlin?
"Any holocaust is a human tragedy," the MIT-educated Salehi answered.
"Are there more than one?" moderator Sylke Tempel, editor of the German magazine Internationale Politik, asked incredulously.
"Well, it's up to you to find out," Salehi replied. When Tempel pressed Salehi to stop "evading the question" and answer if he would visit the memorial and "acknowledge that there was a mass murder of Jews in Europe," Salehi merely reiterated his pat line about "any holocaust" being a "tragedy."
Salehi was no doubt aware that denying the Holocaust is a crime in Germany, which is why he probably chose obfuscation over an outright endorsement of his president's views. While Salehi is protected by diplomatic immunity, he wanted to avoid causing controversy and bringing further embarrassment upon his country. Yet while stopping short of denying the Holocaust in the country which perpetrated it, Salehi trivialized its unique horror through relativization, conceding that if something did in fact happen to European Jews 70 years ago it was no worse than any tragedy that has befallen anyone else.
Despite international sanctions on their government, Iranian officials regularly tour world capitals. But rarely are they asked about Tehran's promotion of Holocaust denial, which extends beyond the frequent statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2006, the regime hosted a two-day conference attended by luminaries like former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, and the self-described Australian "Holocaust questioner" Gerald Fredrick Toben, who has twice been imprisoned for denying the Shoah. In 2007, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani declared the Holocaust to be an open question at the Munich Security Conference, an allegation I essentially heard him repeat at the same forum two years later. So it was disturbingly appropriate that Salehi's visit to Germany coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power and the 24th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Holocaust denial reveals much about the nature of the Iranian regime, both for what it says about the character of Tehran's leadership and their political program. For all the talk about the "rationality" of the Iranian government, it must know that denying the greatest crime in human history - one whose memory is so enshrined in the political and cultural ethos of Europe that mere denial of it can land one in prison - rankles Western interlocutors and weakens its international standing. Yet rather than simply acknowledge that the Holocaust happened and avoid the diplomatic grief attached to such poisonous pronouncements, the Iranian leadership persists in this most cynical of anti-Semitic slanders.
That it does so likely indicates that the clerical fascists who rule Iran believe the Holocaust never took place, a realization that ought to play a not insignificant role in Western assessments of their sanity. But denying the Shoah also serves an important political end, one that Tehran shares with the motley crew of Holocaust deniers around the world: Claiming that Jews invented the myth of their own mass murder undermines the legitimacy of the state founded in its wake. "If the official version of the Holocaust is thrown into doubt, then the identity and nature of Israel will be thrown into doubt," Salehi's predecessor, Manouchehr Mottaki, declared at the opening of the conference.
For many in the West, however, merely raising the point of Iranian Holocaust denial is a bothersome distraction, almost always a provocation from "neocons" or "Likudniks" desperate for a reason to bomb Tehran to smithereens. Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic incitement is isolated to his own speeches, they say, and merely for domestic consumption. And so condemning it only strengthens his power at home. "Ahmedinejad's rants about the Holocaust and Israel should be ignored, precisely because ignoring them will weaken his position," says Joel Rubin of the left-wing Ploughshares Fund.
Such excuse-making insults the Iranian people as it assumes there is a sizeable constituency in Iran for Jew-hatred. Unlike in most Arab countries, the virulent anti-Semitism espoused by the current Iranian regime has never been a widespread sentiment in Persian culture; peaceful Iranian coexistence with Jews goes at least as far back to Cyrus the Great's offering shelter to the Jews during their exile from Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E and rebuilding their temple. There is no reason to believe that the Iranian people share the racist views of their leadership, as attributing Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic outbursts to domestic politicking presumes.
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Other apologists for the Iranian regime, the University of Michigan's Juan Cole foremost among them, simply write off Ahmadinejad as an irrelevant figure whose statements carry no political weight. "He's kind of like our secretary of the Interior or something," Cole says. "So what he thinks about things isn't that important."
If Ahmadinejad's influence was akin to that of a minor cabinet secretary, why would Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini allow him to make such statements? Perhaps Khameini, who can boast his own catalogue of eliminationist anti-Semitic rhetoric, agrees? Cole also argues that Iran's leaders are completely rational actors, not madmen, indeed, maybe even more rational than American or Israeli ones, and that "Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick, "not to mention racist.
On Monday, I found it difficult to find any rationality in the pathetic spectacle of a grown man sitting in the historic capital of the National Socialist regime having to be prodded like a reluctant child into admitting the simple historical fact that the Holocaust took place. What made it pathetic is not that Salehi is a person of obvious intelligence, aware that his interlocutors found his skirting around the veracity of the Shoah at best puzzling and at worst evil. No, what's pathetic is that there are people in the West who believe that the regime he represents is in any way "rational" and that its potential possession of nuclear weapons is something we need not worry too much about.
James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @jkirchick