Oops, He Did It Again: Iran’s Supreme Leader Questions the Holocaust

In his sermon yesterday marking the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used the occasion to revive one of the most insidious themes of the revolutionary state’s dogma, Holocaust denial.

In his remarks at Iran’s most venerable Shi’a site, the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Khamenei described the Holocaust as “an event whose reality is uncertain and, if it happened, it’s uncertain how it happened.” He also criticized European injunctions against questioning the history of this atrocity, noting that “(d)espite this, they expect us to ignore the red lines of the Revolution and Islam.”

These comments represented only a brief aside in a 90-minute oratory that for the most part served as a rallying cry for Iranians to rebuild the nation’s capabilities without reliance on the West. Khamenei reiterated his well-established skepticism that nuclear negotiations will not relinquish Iran’s economy from the grip of international sanctions, and appealed for Iran to “strengthen itself. If a nation is not strong, it will be bullied and trampled.”

Though ancillary to the main thrust of the speech, the references to the Holocaust evoked longstanding concerns about Iran’s official revisionism on this heinous historical episode. Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, earned international notoriety for his repeated public comments questioning the Holocaust and calling for Israel’s “disappearance from the page of history.” Since Ahmadinejad left office in August, Iran’s moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his American-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have sought to rehabilitate Iran’s image. Zarif even went so far as to take up the issue on social media, tweeting in September that “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.” 

Clearly, despite Zarif’s assertion to the contrary, not all the Holocaust skeptics have departed the Iranian power structure. If the Foreign Minister has somehow failed to appreciate this before taking to Twitter, he surely appreciated it a few weeks later, when members of the Iranian parliament sought to call him for questioning over his description of the Holocaust as a “horrifying tragedy” and his implicit recognition of Israel in statements made while visiting New York.

The question that several analysts are posing today is why did Khamenei take this tack — which he must appreciate will provoke international media scrutiny and controversy — now, when his own government is engaged in what both sides describe as constructive negotiations on the framework for a comprehensive nuclear deal? And why did he choose Nowruz, which is a time of celebration and renewal among Iranians, and even generates ritualistic commendations to Iran by American leaders?

The better question might be, why not? The Supreme Leader’s comments were nothing new; skepticism surrounding the historical facts of the Holocaust atrocities and the resentment of Western respect shown toward its victims has been a fairly consistent theme in Khamenei’s speeches over the years. Scholars have tracked similar language by Khamenei at least as far back as 1979, and a search of the English-language translations of selected speeches on the Supreme Leader’s own website turns up several choice examples. Expressions of disbelief surrounding the Holocaust fit neatly into a worldview embraced by many — though not all — senior figures in the Islamic Republic, a narrative that depicts Israel’s very existence as illegitimate.

There are, of course, innumerable possible political calculations behind the decision to revive the issue now. Khamenei may be trying to shore up the commitment of the orthodox supporters of the regime even as he submits to a nuclear detente with Washington. Or he may be signaling that the regime’s ideological predilections will not be modulated to meet European or American interpretations of morality, which he openly derides.

After all, his predecessor, the revolutionary regime’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, coincided his 1988 decision to accept a cease-fire with Iraq, which he likened to drinking a poison chalice, with renewed and intensified domestic repression and one final bid at infamy by condemning British writer Salman Rushdie to death for his novel The Satanic Verses.

There may be a simpler explanation; it may be that Iran’s ultimate authority harbors a vicious, conspiratorial, wicked — and oh yes, erroneous — view of the West. In fact, I made this same case back in November, when Khamenei presaged the signing of the interim nuclear accord with a scorching denunciation of the United States and Israel, in which he not only described the Israeli leadership as a “rabid dog” but also argued that Washington’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki postdated the war’s end and was merely an excuse to test nuclear weapons on civilians.

At that time, I argued that:

“Iran’s ultimate authority is an individual who is profoundly convinced of American immorality, greed and wickedness; who detests Israel; and who anticipates the ultimate triumph of the Islamic world over what he sees as a declining West and illegitimate Israel. That mindset does not contravene whatever progress can be achieved in negotiations with Iran, nor should it exclude any diplomacy that advances the world’s common interest in forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. After all, arms control agreements are seldom required among mutually sympathetic states, and a robust set of constraints and verification measures on Iran’s nuclear program can be enforced irrespective of its leadership’s abhorrent views.”

“At the same time, the beleaguered advocates of bilateral diplomacy between Washington and Tehran should not casually dismiss the continuing reliance on such epithets. For any nuclear deal to be durable, Iran’s highest leaders must be invested in — not merely coerced to accept — the outcome of mutual reassurance and threat reduction. Khamenei’s remarks, which included wild-eyed accusations of American war crimes, make a mockery of that objective.”

However tempting it may be for those who support the diplomatic process with Tehran, no one should discount Khamenei’s repeated indulgences in intolerance. He is not, as some analysts have suggested, a fading figure in Iran’s convoluted power structure, nor is he likely to refashion himself at this late date as a liberalizer. However, it should also not be forgotten that Khamenei’s views are not shared by the entirety of the Islamic Republic’s establishment. A system steeped in antagonisms has proven capable of producing several more enlightened leaders — which will prove a necessity if it is to fully reengage with the rest of the world and maintain its legitimacy among a population that is mostly too sophisticated to be duped by the disgraceful misrepresentations of Khamenei and his ilk.