Denying the denial in Iran
1 October 2013
It is understandable that many people breathed a sigh of relief when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's term of office as President of Iran came to an end this summer, in the hope that the foul antisemitism and Holocaust denial that marked his Presidency might be consigned to the past.
This hope is the most charitable explanation for the simplistic, and even misleading, reporting of statements by his successor, Hassan Rouhani, in New York last week. In an interview with CNN, Rouhani was reported as acknowledging that the Holocaust happened, and condemning it. A typical example was in the Guardian:
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani recognises 'reprehensible' Holocaust
Comments in marked contrast to predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly called the Holocaust a myth
The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has put an end to eight years of Holocaust denial under his firebrand predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by condemning the "crime" of mass killings of Jews by the Nazis.
In an interview after his largely conciliatory speech at the UN general assembly on Tuesday, Rouhani accepted that the Holocaust had taken place and called it reprehensible.
"I've said before that I am not a historian, and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect," Rouhani told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
"But, in general, I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn."
Except...not so fast. Fars News, an Iranian news agency described as having ties to the government, claimed that CNN had mis-translated Rouhani's words and even "fabricated" part of his interview.
Mohammad Reza Sadeq, Rouhani's Presidential Advisor, insists that Rouhani never used the word "Holocaust":
"Mr. Rouhani did not at all used the word Holocaust even a single time all throughout his five day visit to New York that he was posed to the reporters questions and when they talked about the incidents in the World War II," Sadeq told FNA Saturday night.
"Mr. Rouhani never used the word Holocaust," he reiterated.
The Holocaust issue came to the spotlight in the media when CNN host Christiane Amanpour conducted an interview with President Rouhani on the sidelines of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York which was full of not just mistranslations, but fabrication and falsification of the president's remarks about the Holocaust.
Press TV, never shy of denying the Holocaust, claim that "both former President Ahmadinejad and current President Rouhani share a common outlook on Israel and the Nazi holocaust". With their usual good taste, they have called American media coverage of Rouhani's CNN interview a "Holocaust of lies".
CNN are standing by their transcript, but whether Rouhani used the word "Holocaust" or not is beside the point. Even if CNN's transcript is accurate, Rouhani's position is not really an acknowledgement of the Holocaust at all. To accept that lots of Jews were killed (along with many other people) and to condemn those killings - but to go no further - puts Rouhani in the same ball park as David Irving and Nick Griffin. Big deal.
Rouhani may have a more amiable manner than his predecessor, but if you are looking for an Iranian President who is willing to acknowledge that Nazi Germany conceived and executed a deliberate programme of industrial genocide, based on a profoundly antisemitic ideology, which resulted in the murder of around 6 million European Jews, he is not your man - or not yet, at least.
But then Iranian Holocaust Denial was always a much wider phenomenon than the individual persona of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. When Ahmadinejad first came under criticism from foreign governments for his Holocaust denial, supportive Iranian media outlets rallied round their President. The Holocaust is a "fake story" and "the Zionists' big lie", according to Resalat newspaper. There should be "no halt and persistence in exposing the Holocaust as a historical fable", urged Kayhan newspaper.
Nor was Ahmadinejad the first Iranian President to publicly embrace Holocaust denial. In 1997 the French Holocaust Denier and convert to Islam, Roger Garaudy, visited Iran where he met Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had concluded an eight-year term as President that year. Rafsanjani later gave a speech in which he claimed that only 200,000 Jews died during World War Two, but that "The Jews, the Zionists, turned this into a vast propaganda process."
This support for Holocaust deniers was not merely rhetorical. In 2000 two European deniers, Jurgen Graf and Wolfgang Frohlich, found refuge in Iran because they were subject to prosecution in Switzerland and Austria respectively for their Holocaust denial activities.
And for those who point out that the Iranian Presidency wields little real power, which in fact resides in the hands of the Supreme Leader of Iran, here is the view of Ayatollah Khamenei himself, from his own website:
Western countries allow no freedom of expression, which they claim to advocate, with regard to the myth of the massacre of Jews known as the holocaust, and nobody in the West enjoys the freedom of expression to deny it or raise doubts about it.
This 2006 speech by Khamenei holds the key to understanding Iranian Holocaust denial, because of the way it deploys classic antisemitic conspiracy theories under the euphemistic cover of opposing "Zionists". The sentence above is followed by this explanation of the Danish cartoons affair:
I guess the whole affair is a premeditated Zionist plot aimed at pitting Muslims and Christians against each other...Today we can see that the Zionist hands are at work in the Christian world and Europe preparing the ground for this confrontation...all should know that the sacred and justified anger of Muslims is not against Christians, but it is against the wicked and hidden Zionist hands that have hatched this plot and are treating the politicians of arrogant powers as their tools and playthings. They also are wielding control over many publications and the media in the West.
Holocaust denial does not exist in isolation, in Iran or elsewhere. It is part of an antisemitic politics that explains global events through conspiracy theories and incites hatred of Jews as the source of all that is bad in the world. It is deeply embedded in the worldview of the Iranian regime, and to expect it to disappear just because Iran has a new President is extremely naive.