The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Holocaust: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism

Meir Litvak. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 25, Issue 1. March 2006.

The Ideological Basis of Anti-Judaism and Anti-Zionism

Iran espouses the most radical anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist position in the Muslim Middle East, calling for the elimination of Israel. Drawing on anti-Jewish traditions in Shi’i Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, maintained that Zionism is the culmination of the Jewish-Christian conspiracy against Islam and undermines its historical mission. Fusing together Islamic and European anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist ideologies, Iran became a disseminator of Holocaust denial in the Middle East and a sponsor of Western Holocaust deniers. Iran’s Holocaust denial, which aims at demolishing the legitimacy of the Jewish state, denies Jewish history and deprives the Jews of their human dignity by presenting their worst tragedy as a scam.

Iran espouses the most radical anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist position in the Muslim Middle East, which is epitomized in the depiction of Israel as the “Little Satan,” as a “cancerous tumor” that has to be removed, and in the official slogan that “Israel must be wiped out” (Isra’il bayad mahw shavad). The essence of this enmity is religious as Iran does not share a common border with Israel and the two states do not have conflicting strategic or economic interests. Moreover, during most of the period of Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign (1941-79), the two countries were close economic and strategic allies. Anti-Zionism has become an important pillar of Iranian revolutionary ideology, which encompasses other revolutionary goals: hostility to the West, opposition to the Shah and basic enmity to the Jewish state.

Anti-Zionism has been one of the few areas where the Iranian regime has remained true to its revolutionary program and has not bowed to pragmatic considerations. One could even argue that demonstrating enmity towards Zionism and Israel served in many ways as a fig leaf compensating for the many compromises that it was forced to make in other areas. It is also a unique subject on which there is almost total unanimity among all the factions within the Iranian clergy, which is divided on most other issues.

The link between these anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist positions is evident in Iran’s advocacy and sponsorship of Holocaust denial and its alliance with notorious Holocaust deniers in the West, who are both blatant anti-Semites and anti-Zionists. In its effort to delegitimize Zionism and present it as based on lie and deceit, Iran chooses to focus on the most salient and tragic event in modern Jewish history, which was not directly related either to Zionism or to Iranian-Israeli relations. The source and motivation of this enmity is indigenous, stemming from religious and nationalist sentiment, while the arguments are borrowed from Western sources, producing a symbiosis between European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, as well as between traditional and modern motifs. While the Islamic regime in Iran usually rejects Western cultural influence as anathema to authentic Islamic culture, it has not hesitated to borrow anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish themes from the same West in the service of its causes.

Iranian Holocaust denial is aimed not only at the Iranian public but also at Western constituencies, as evident in the leading role played in this effort by the two English-language newspapers in Iran, Tehran Times and Kayhan International, which address a foreign audience in Iran and the West. Iran, like Holocaust deniers in the Arab world, apparently believes that the memory of the Holocaust was the foundation of Western support for the establishment of Israel. Therefore, refuting it would severely undermine Israel’s legitimacy in the West and help in its eradication.

Iran’s anti-Zionism emanates from two central foundations in the teachings of all Islamist movements in the Middle East, which combine both traditional Islamic elements with modern nationalist and Third Worldist concepts. The first views Zionism as the culmination of a Judeo-Western political and cultural onslaught on the Muslim world, which is the root source of the latter’s deep crisis, weakness and malaise in the modern era. The second is the revival of traditional anti-Jewish attitudes in Islamic culture and history, which regard the Jews as basically hostile to Islam since its inception. These traditions regard the Jews not as a people but as a dispersed religious community destined to subordination and subjugation by the Muslims ever since they rejected the message of the Prophet Muhammad. Both elements occupy central stage in the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the ideological founder and leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and have guided the Iranian government ever since the 1979 revolution.

Iran’s anti-Zionism is rooted in the deep animosity towards the Jews in the teaching of traditional Shicism. The reason for this enmity could not have been economic as the Jews were a small and poor community that did not play any significant role in Iran’s economy or society and did not compete with any social group. One possible reason for this intolerance, which was occasionally directed against heterodox Islamic sects in Iran, was the Shicis” sense of insecurity in the light of their own fate as a persecuted minority in the more distant past. Conversely, the majority school of Sunni Islam could afford to be more generous towards minorities, although this tolerance also subsided from the late nineteenth century with the growing sense of threat to Islam. The survival in Shicism of radical pre-Islamic Zoroastrian concepts of ritual purity, which distinguished the true believers from infidels, was also a contributory factor.

Consequently, ever since Iran became a Shici state in 1501 it had adopted the most oppressive policy towards the Jews compared with any other Sunni state (with the exception of the twelfth-century Muwahiddun dynasty in Morocco). Unlike the Sunnis, who enabled minorities to keep their religions, numerous Jewish communities in Iran were forced to convert to Islam, and some were physically eliminated during the seventeenth century, and even as late as the nineteenth century. As such they suffered far more than the Christian minority, which was economically more important.

Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were not confined to clerical circles. Radical nationalists, who emphasized Iran’s Aryan origins, also adopted anti-Jewish views during the 1920s and 1940s. To name but two of the most prominent examples, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, one of the leading writers in Iran, who had written favorably of Israel after visiting it in 1962, later adopted a strong anti-Zionist view as part of his return to religion; and Dr. cAli Sharicati, the ideologue of revolutionary Shici Islam, used strong anti-Jewish pejoratives in his own writings during the late 1960s. Conceivably, part of this animosity was aimed against the Shah’s ties with Israel.

It was Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, founder and leader of the Islamic Republic, however, who made anti-Semitism a central component of Iran’s Islamic ideology. Already in the first page of his major book, Velayat-e Faqih: Hukumat-e Eslami (The governance of the jurist: Islamic government), Khomeini charged that “from the very beginning” Islam “was afflicted by the Jews, for it was they who established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems” against the Muslims. As proof of the wickedness of the Jews, Khomeini often quoted passages from the Qur’an describing the Jews as immersed in sin and as being constantly reprimanded by God for their evil doings. Following their ancestors during the Prophet’s time, the Jews and Christians, according to Khomeini, conspired against Islam in the modern period as well, seeking to undermine the most important feature of Islam as a comprehensive and total system of law that governs society and state. In order to achieve their objective, the Jews joined hands with other groups that were “more satanic than they” in order to facilitate the imperialist penetration of the Muslim countries. Their main goal was the “extirpation of Islam” in addition to sowing doubt and confusion in the hearts of Muslims, since “Islam and its ordinances” were the “main obstacle in the path of their materialistic ambitions.” In addition, the West, consisting of Jewish and Christian elements, resists the righteous cause of Islam to expand to the “four corners of the globe.” The Jews, “may God curse them,” Khomeini adds, “are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world.” They “meddle with the text of the Qur’an” and disseminate false translations that distort its meaning in order to slander Islam. Like other Islamic thinkers, Khomeini sometimes describes the Jews as fifth columnists in the world of Islam and as agents of the West, and at other times as the real power that stands behind the West in its offensive against Islam.

Linking Judaism and Zionism, Khomeini maintained that the most overt manifestation of the Jewish-Christian conspiracy against Islam was the establishment of Israel by Western imperialism in order to oppress the Muslims. Both Khomeini and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah cAli Khamene’i, stated that “the occupation of Palestine [by the Jews] is part of a satanic design by the world domineering powers, perpetrated by the British in the past and being carried out today by the United States, to weaken the solidarity of the Islamic world and to sow the seeds of disunity among Muslims.”

Khomeini depicted the success of Zionism as a direct consequence of the crisis of Islam in the modern era, as a sort of punishment for the abandonment of religion. If the rulers of the Muslim countries truly represented the believers and enacted God’s ordinances, he said, then “a handful of wretched Jews (the agents of America, Britain and other foreign powers) would never have been able to accomplish what they have.” In other words, Khomeini made a direct link between Zionism and the processes of secularization and cultural Westernization taking place in Iran and the Muslim world during the modern age, which threatened the foundations of Islam and subjugated it to imperialism. Since secularization is the greatest threat to Muslim societies, Zionism was directly responsible for the greatest predicament that had befallen Islam and the Muslims in the modern age. Khomeini identified any harm done to Islam as serving the Jews. Israel’s hostility to Islam and the Muslims was not confined to Palestine but extended to the entire Muslim world. Going further, he portrayed Israel and Zionism as the enemies not only of Islam but also of humanity in its entirety.

The Shah’s close ties with the United States and Israel served Khomeini’s case against the Jews and made it easier for him to attack the Shah’s own policies. Khomeini presented the Shah’s political struggle with the clergy and his secularization policies as part of the Zionist-Western campaign against Iran. Following the June 1963 mass protests against the Shah’s White Revolution, he stated that henceforth “Jews, Christians and the enemies of Islam and the Muslims are to decide on affairs concerning the honor and person of the Muslims.” He attributed the government suppression of the 1963 protests to Israeli plots. “Israel does not wish the Qur’an to exist in this country,” he charged. “It wishes to seize your economy, to destroy your trade and agriculture, to appropriate your wealth.”

Zionism is regarded as even more detrimental to the Muslims than ordinary Western colonialism because of the widespread Islamist perception, shared by Khomeini, that the Jews were not a people at all, but a religious community that had no right to statehood. Moreover, the Jews were seen as being condemned to eternal humiliation and subordination to Muslims ever since they had rejected the message of the Prophet Mohammad. The Zionist challenge to the correct historical order, which assigns the Jews to an inferior position, is exacerbated since it has taken place in the very heart of the lands of Islam and deprives the Muslim people of Palestine, who had lived there since the time of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, of its rights to its land. It has culminated in the capture and Jewish domination of the third holiest place for Islam, Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Therefore, the Jews’ very claim to statehood is sinister and depraved by its very nature, as well as an affront to Islam and to the natural historical order, and whoever advances this claim must be corrupt and evil. Hence, Khamene’i’s charge against Israel fuses anti-Zionism with animosity towards the Jews:

What are you? A forged government and a false nation. They gathered wicked people from all over the world and made something called the Israeli nation. Is that a nation? All the malevolent and evil Jews have gathered there. … Those [Jews] who went to Israel were malevolent, evil, greedy thieves and murderers.

Enmity towards Israel was linked to an important element of Shicism, which Khomeini highlighted—that is, the duty of each believer to take an active part in the struggle against injustice. Passivity in the face of grave injustice makes the believer an accessory to it. No arena is more crucial in this context than the defense of Muslim Jerusalem. The cultivation of the spirit of self-sacrifice in modern Shicism added another dimension to the call for an all-out war against Israel. The struggle against Israel was portrayed as an important justification for the Iranian revolution itself. Consequently, Khomeini elevated Jerusalem to a much more important position in modern Shici discourse than it had ever had in the past. Seeking also to appeal to the Sunni and particularly Arab masses, Iran dedicates the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan as Qods (Jerusalem) Day to express its support for the Palestinian struggle.

Khomeini did not mince words about the desired fate of the Jews as enemies of Islam. Pointing to the “most noble messenger” as his model, he reminds his readers that when the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, who “were a troublesome group,” caused “corruption among the Muslims,” the Prophet “eliminated them.” After assuming power in 1979, however, the Iranian leaders sought to render their anti-Jewish animosity more presentable. In addition, as jurists they may have wanted to portray Iran as a model for the conduct of Islamic states towards religious minorities. Consequently, leaders and spokesmen of the Islamic regime claimed to make a distinction between Zionists, whom they vehemently opposed, and Jews, who should be treated with tolerance, since, in Khomeini’s words, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” Thus support for Israel and Zionism became a crime punishable by death, and the Islamic revolutionary courts sentenced several Jewish communal leaders to death on grounds of Zionism and connections with Israel. Concurrently, the Islamic constitution allocated one seat in parliament to a representative of the Jewish community, who also joined the anti-Zionist chorus.

The most eloquent spokesman for this distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, particularly in his statements to the foreign media, was the mildly reformist President (since 1997) Mohammad Khatami. He insisted that while “the East” had had “despotism and dictatorship,” it had never had fascism or Nazism, which were purely “western phenomena,” and for which the “West has paid dearly.” He expressed his concern, however, that “this western anti-Semitism and anti-Jewishness might turn into a tool for the imposition of a whole range of wrong policies and practices”—that is, Zionism—on the people of the Middle East and Muslims in general. Yet, even he mentioned “greedy elements” that had reached the United States, probably alluding to the Jews.

In reality, however, expressions of anti-Jewish sentiments continued to abound in the Iranian media and in pronouncements of senior government and clerical officials, and the terms “Jews” and “Zionists” were used interchangeably. Thus Ayatollah Emami Kashani, member of the powerful Council of Guardians, created a direct link between present-day Israeli policies and “Jewish atrocities” against the Muslims carried out since the first century of Islam. Likewise, Grand Ayatollah Nuri-Hamadani referred to Jewish enmity towards Islam from its inception, going on to say that “at present the Jews’ policies threaten us. One should explain in the clearest terms the danger the Jews pose to the [Iranian] people and to the Muslims.” More importantly, he insisted that it was necessary to “fight the Jews and vanquish them so that the conditions for the advent of the Hidden Imam [i.e. the Shi’ messiah] be met.” In other words, he infused a messianic element into the struggle against the Jews and possible even hinged the redemption of the Muslims or even of the whole world upon their defeat. Interestingly, he referred to the Jews of Medina at the time of the Prophet as “the center of Zionists”—that is, he emphasized the historical continuity between past Jewish communities and present-day Zionists and, one is almost tempted to say, adopted the Zionist argument of the unity of Jewish history. He further explained that the execution of seven hundred of the Jews of Medina in a single day was a “step toward strengthening Islam, in order to crush the bastion of the global arrogance, and … to eradicate this cancerous tumor,” again linking the Jews then with present-day imperialism [“global arrogance” in Iranian terminology] and Israel. In addition, Israel was occasionally referred to as “the Jewish entity” or as a “bunch of Jews,” or the “Jewish nation,” while at other times Jews in the diaspora were referred to as Zionists. To cite one example, the Iranian media used to emphasize the Jewish identity of US officials, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in order to explain their policies in the Middle East.

A major manifestation of the highly blurred distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism was the serial publication of the notorious anti-Semitic tract, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in more than 150 installments by the establishment newspapers Ettelacat and Jomhuri-ye Eslami. In 2000, the Iranian government published a special edition of the Protocols whose introduction was designed to show “the Zionist … inveterate rancor against Islam and Muslims,” as well as their “boundless passion for usurpation and hegemony.” In April 2004 the Iranian TV station al-cAlam aired a documentary titled Al-sameri wa al-saher (The golden calf and the tempter), which purported to explain how the Jews control Hollywood by the directives set out in the Protocols. Thus it explained that the movie Yentl, which Barbra Streisand starred in and also produced in 1983, “dealt with the Zionists’ wish to benefit from feminism, the new women’s movement.”

All Iranian officials and media expressed their conviction and belief that Israel is a “cancerous tumor” or “a calamity imposed by the West on the region” and “a germ which has infected the entire Middle East region with a disease that cannot be cured except by a surgical operation and by removing the germ from the region’s body.” Therefore, it should and would be “destroyed and shattered.” According to Supreme Leader Khamene’i the only way to resolve the Middle East crisis was to destroy “the Zionist regime,” the “root and cause of the crisis.” Moreover, Khamene’i posited Iran’s “honor, strength, unity and national interest” as depending on its standing up to the “cancerous tumor of the Zionist regime,” thereby elevating the enmity towards Zionism from pure ideology to a question of national interest for Iran and an existential issue for the Islamic revolution itself. Other officials followed suit.

Finally, ostensibly less hostile statements by Iranian leaders that they do not seek to “throw the Jews into the sea,” but merely seek to replace Zionism with a more benign state and system of government in which Muslims, Christians and Jews could live in peace, are misleading. Such statements are a euphemism for the abolition of the State of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic system, in which Jews are deprived of their right to self-determination and are relegated at best to the status of dhimmi, a protected but subordinated minority under Islamic rule.

Iran and the Holocaust

As part of its anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish rhetoric, Iran became a major supporter and disseminator of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world. In general it can be said that the representation of the Holocaust has become a major criterion in the examination of attitudes towards the Jews in general, and towards Israel in particular. Consequently, the greater the recognition and importance that the Holocaust acquired in Western cultural and political discourse and in Israeli collective identity, the greater was the urge among Arab and other Muslim writers to deny it.

It should be remembered that World War II is not perceived in Arab and Muslim collective memory as a war between good and absolute evil. Rather, they view it as a war in which they had no direct interest, while they had to bear the brunt of its aftermath and pay a price with the displacement of the Palestinians. The immediate context of the Holocaust for Middle Easterners has been the establishment of the State of Israel in the midst of the Arab world and its efforts to gain legitimacy. For many Arabs the Jews were the real victors of World War II. Zionism is perceived as cynically using the Holocaust, and even inventing it as a means of financial and psychological extortion, in order to create and cultivate a sense of guilt in the West. Concurrently, various Arab circles have used Nazi symbols, terminology and ideology to project them on Zionism and Israel, thus transforming victims into culprits.

While Iran hosts and sponsors Western Holocaust deniers, there are some important differences between the two parties. Holocaust deniers in the West usually belong to the extreme right and represent marginal political forces. They are often racists who detest Jews as well as other foreign ethnic groups, including Muslim immigrants. In Iran, on the other hand, the senior state leaders, headed by Supreme Leader Khamene’i, have taken part in denial, and the state media were mobilized to take part in the campaign as well. Consequently, as an official government position in a non-democratic state, denial is not challenged and the Iranian public is not exposed to the more historically valid Western academic and public discourse of the Holocaust.

Deniers in the West seek to redeem the reputation of Nazism or of Hitler personally and rehabilitate the past as part of the current political battles in their countries. By contrast, Iranian Holocaust denial is not interested in Nazism per se, and its main focus is the attack on Zionism and Israel. Moreover, the deniers in Iran regard themselves explicitly as anti-Nazi; they denounce Nazism as blatant racism and as an evil regime that committed war crimes. The common enmity to Jews and to Israel enables both groups, the Western neo-Nazis and the Iranian Islamists, to gloss over the differences between them. For the Iranians it means ignoring the racist views of Western Holocaust deniers and of the radical European right. Like the European deniers, the Iranian deniers tend to relativize the Holocaust and argue for the moral equivalency between the crimes of the Nazis and those of the Allies.

Themes of Denial

The “big lies” and the “Holocaust myth” are but two of the terms used by Iranian spokesmen to describe the Holocaust. The most common theme that serves the political goal behind Iranian denial is the one voiced during a solidarity conference with the Palestinian struggle held in April 2001 by Supreme Leader Khamene’i himself—that the “Zionists had exaggerated Nazi crimes against European Jewry in order to solicit international support for the establishment of the Zionist entity in 1948.” There is even evidence, he added, that a “large number of non-Jewish hooligans and thugs of Eastern Europe were forced to migrate to Palestine as Jews,” as part of this conspiracy.

The Iranian press attributed the “Holocaust myth” to a Zionist-American alliance which exploited the common goal of struggle against the Nazis that formed during the war for the malevolent political goals of each party. The false slogan of the murder of millions of Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany was a “ridiculous pretext through which the Zionists, by fabricating and propagating it, managed to convince public opinion of the need to establish a Jewish state” in the midst of Muslim lands. The Zionists used this “myth” in order to fight anti-Zionism, which was rife throughout Europe before the war, seeking to “make the Jews look oppressed so they could achieve their murderous goals in other parts of the world.” Concurrently, the United States used it as a means for expanding its influence as a superpower “searching for colonies in the world and in Europe.” The instrumentalist use of Holocaust denial to undermine Zionism is evident in an interview with the German-Australian Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben published by the official Iranian news agency MEHR on 29 December 2004, in which he claimed that “the state of Israel is founded on the ‘Holocaust’ lie” and that “exposing this lie” would help “dismantle the Zionist entity.”

Citing spurious statistics provided by neo-Nazi organizations and personalities, Kayhan, which is published by the office of the Supreme Leader, contended that the number of Jews declined from 15,600,000 prior to the war to 15,000,000 at its end, claiming thereby the fallacy of the Holocaust. Millions of Europeans “white and black and from different races and religions” died during the war, and it was natural that some Jews died among them as well, it conceded, but the claim that Hitler aimed at killing the Jews as a policy was completely “baseless” and the “Jews” most shameful propaganda lie.”

Like their Western mentors, the Iranian Holocaust deniers focus their attention on refuting the existence of the gas chambers in order both to shatter the symbol of the Holocaust and to grant their arguments pseudo-academic validity. The most prominent example was a seven-part series named interchangeably “the Auschwitz Lie” and the “Auschwitz conspiracy,” published in the English-language daily Tehran Times, which relied heavily on the writings of Western Holocaust deniers such as David Irving, Robert Faurisson and Ernst Zündel, who are often described in the Iranian media as “famous historians” or serious scholars.

Tehran Times conceded that as a “concentration camp” Auschwitz was “a place of terrible human suffering” and that around 150,000 prisoners from “all nationalities” died there mostly from diseases, “insufficient nourishment and overworking.” However, it highlighted the reduction of the numbers of estimated victims by credible historians from 4,000,000 to around 1,200,000 as refuting Auschwitz’s role as an extermination camp for the Jews. Had it been so, it charged, “virtually no Jew would have survived, yet, the memoirs of former Auschwitz inmates “fill whole libraries.” “Professional survivors,” such as the “arch-liar” Elie Wiesel, who present themselves as witnesses of the “Holocaust,” are a living proof that the alleged extermination of the Jews did not take place. Tehran Times castigated the survivors who testified in war trials as “Jewish swindlers” and “liars,” who “could travel from one trial and from one press conference to the other without fear of exposure.” Ironically, two of the persons it mentioned, Philip Mueller and Rudolf Verba, were not Zionists at all, pointing to the ignorance or anti-Jewish sentiment of the Tehran Times writers, who do not distinguish between the two groups. Concurrently, it rejected the confessions of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss that enumerated his deeds, by claiming that he was “tortured for three days by his Jewish and British interrogators before signing the statement his tormentors had prepared for him.”

Following the footsteps of the leading French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, Tehran Times manipulated some genuine historical facts to falsify historical reality. It cited the fate of Anne Frank’s family, where the two sisters died of starvation and exhaustion in Bergen-Belsen while their father survived, to claim that there was no Nazi “extermination policy.” At most, it was willing to acknowledge that Jews were “heavily persecuted and large numbers of them perished because of the bad conditions in the camps.” Likewise, the story of Israeli Holocaust historian Yisrael Gutman, who “survived Auschwitz, Majdnek, Mauthausen and Gunkirchen,” served Tehran Times to show that many Jews were transferred from one camp to another “without ever risking murder.”

The Iranian media was particularly annoyed at the Zionist “blackmail of the west” based on “one of the biggest frauds of the outgoing century,” which resulted in payments of “huge amounts of money in reparations to the Zionist entity and the relatives of those claimed to have perished in the Nazi gas chambers.” Such “baseless claims,” Kayhan International commented, “had held the German nation hostage for the past 50 years.” Many Germans, it reported elsewhere, felt “highly disgusted, rather frustrated, to be forced to carry on the burden of guilt and shame for the so-called Nazi war crimes,” as the “nightmare of holocaust [sic] is not allowed to end by the Americans.” Concurrently, Tehran Times complained that while Germany “continues to pay billions of Marks as compensation to the Jews every year” for a crime the paper denied on other occasions, it had evaded the moral duty to compensate the Iranian victims of German-produced Iraqi chemical weapons.

Presumably influenced by the Arab Holocaust discourse, Iranians often employ contradictory arguments relating to the Holocaust, particularly denial and the accusation hurled at Zionism of collaborating with the Nazis in killing Jews. Then Majlis (Parliament) Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, often regarded as a moderate reformist in Iranian domestic politics, stated at an anti-Zionist rally in October 2000 that “Hitler’s massacre of innocent Jews in Germany was a conspiracy of the Zionists.” “The first premier and the founder of the regime, which occupied Palestine,” he added, was himself involved in these activities as he handed over 40,000 Jews to Hitler in order to carry out that plan. Tehran Times went into greater details, citing what it claimed to be historical evidence proving collaboration between “the Nazi regime and the Zionist lobby in purging the Jews who were considered insignificant.” Some “poor non-Zionist Jews were sacrificed for the hideous goal of the Zionists, the establishment of a Jewish state,” it went on, and therefore the “massacre of Jews in Germany and German occupied territories was only limited to the working class and it never affected the elite Jewish capitalists or the Zionists.” On 29 December 2004, the official news agency MEHR published a review of the movie Exodus by Mojtaba Habibi, in which he accused the Jews of collaboration with the Nazis and of orchestrating a grand scheme of world domination together with Joseph Stalin.

The TV documentary Al-sameri wa al-saher mentioned above claimed that “the most important film” produced in Hollywood “under Zionist guidance” in the 1960s was called Operation Eichmann, which “completed the false myth about the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis.” Yet, it went on, the film producers failed to mention Adolf Eichmann’s own testimony, in which he allegedly explained that he “was only carrying out the orders of the Zionists.” “If I am guilty of the so-called killing of 6 million Jews,” the fictitious Eichmann supposedly said, “then the Zionist leaders are much guiltier than I am. This is because they wanted to silence the world under the pretext that if they had stayed in Germany they would have been killed, and since they did not have a country they were forced to occupy other people’s land. And that is what they did.” Following similar allegations of such collaboration put forward by some Arab writers, the documentary claimed that “the Zionist authorities finished the trial quickly to avoid further commotion and hanged Eichmann in 1962 so the secrets of the collaboration between the Zionists and the Nazis would remain hidden.”

The instrumentalist usage of Iranian Holocaust denial as a means of delegitimizing Israel was also evident in the frequent comparisons by Iranian official spokesmen and media between Zionism and Nazism, and between the “Gestapo-like” policies of Israel and those of Hitler. While vilifying Israel, such comparisons served to belittle the scope of Nazi crimes and atrocities. Thus, in his sermon on Qods (Jerusalem) day on 23 January 1998, cAli Akbar Rafsanjani, the number-two man in the Iranian hierarchy, denounced Israel as “much worse than Hitler,” stating that the fact that the Zionists “killed more than one million Palestinians and made millions vagrant is much worse than what Adolph Hitler did during World War II with the Jews.” Priding himself as being “an expert in this field,” Rafsanjani calculated that the number of Jews in Europe prior to World War II had been less than six million. He conceded that Hitler had “committed injustice against the Jews and other groups,” and that he had “oppressed and persecuted Muslims, Christians, atheists [and] Marxists,” but insisted that he had killed only 200,000 Jews. The figure of six million Jewish victims was therefore “only a propaganda act by the Zionists.” Rafsanjani also equated Zionist ideology, which considered the Jews “to be a unique and superior race,” with “Hitler’s identical belief regarding the German nation’ and stated that two Nazi and racist currents were pitted against each other.”

Likewise, the English-language Iran Daily, commenting on the 2001 Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, condemned the “Zionist propaganda-mill,” that “bombards the world with an unceasing and unrelenting stream of messages aimed at “perpetuating the holocaust memory in the collective consciousness of the world”. The “genocidal war launched by the Jews against the Palestinian people,” and the “brutality and utter callousness of Israeli repression,” it went on, prompted many Palestinians and non-Palestinians to draw an analogy between “the German holocaust against Jews and the Jewish holocaust against Palestinians.” Palestinian villagers “spoke spontaneously how Nablus, Ramallah, and al-Khalil [Hebron] turned into modern-day Aushwitzes, Treblinkas, and Bergen-Belsens.” The growing comparison by Palestinians of “the Jewish-perpetrated holocaust against them” to “the Nazi holocaust against Jews” is likely to be dismissed as “exaggerated,” maybe even a little “far-fetched” by the Zionist-influenced media in the West. However, it concluded, a close and objective examination of Israeli torment of Palestinian civilians “reveals that the Palestinian-holocaust-versus-the-Jewish-holocaust analogy is anything but ‘far-fetched’ both at the practical and theoretical levels.”

The purpose of the equation was evident in the statement of Muhsin Reza’i, secretary of the powerful Iranian Expediency Council and founder of the Iranian-led International Anti-Zionist Movement. Reza’i, who counted Nazism, apartheid and Zionism as the three sinister, inhumane phenomena in the twentieth century, predicted that Zionism would finally meet a similar fate as that of Nazism and apartheid—that is, destruction.

Supporting Western Holocaust Deniers

While attacking “Zionist lies” on the Holocaust, the Iranian media praised the courage and moral fortitude of Western Holocaust deniers as “experts,” “scholars” and “historians” who challenged the “influence of the Zionists on Western media” and who “sought to prove the falsehood of this historical allegation on the basis of reliable evidence.” It highlighted the legal action taken against some of them in Europe as a manifestation of the power of Zionism but also of the arbitrary and tyrannical nature of the Western democratic and justice systems. Every one of these deniers, Jomhuri-ye Eslami stated, “was either eliminated or quickly isolated and restricted.” Kayhan International shared the pain expressed by German-Australian Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben that the Germans have become “strangers in their own country,” in view of the “the unjust treatment meted out to him” in Germany. “What can possibly justify the imprisonment of journalists, teachers and researchers for just questioning a historical event?” Tehran Times asked in righteous indignation at the Western abuse of freedom of speech so dear to the Islamic regime. “Apparently, only the Big Brother in Orwell’s ‘1984’ can decide who can think and what he can think about,” was its answer.

Iran went further than any Arab country in hosting and officially endorsing Western Holocaust deniers who faced difficulties in their home countries. Ahmad Rami, a Moroccan exile in Sweden who propagated Holocaust denial on his Radio Islam and was sentenced in 1990 to six months in prison and three years on parole for racial incitement, became a guest of Iran immediately after his release. Rami boasted that his case was discussed in high governing circles and the Iranian parliament (Majlis) held a special session in his honor. Upon his return to Europe he set up an internet website in ten languages, named Radio Islam, which was reportedly supported financially by Iran and which engaged in Holocaust denial and blatant anti-Semitic propaganda. The Swiss neo-Nazi activist Jurgen Graff, who had been sentenced in 1998 to fifteen months in jail, fled his homeland and took up political asylum in Iran. He subsequently set out with the active assistance of his hosts to organize an international conference for the denial of the Holocaust that was to be held in Beirut during March 2001. Wolfgang Fröhlich, an Austrian engineer who testified in court on behalf of Graff in 1998, also sought refuge in Iran in May 2000, claiming that his arrest by Austrian police was imminent.

The Institute of Historical Review (IHR), the flagship of Holocaust deniers in the United States, took pride in the fact that “Iran’s official radio” had “expressed support for Holocaust revisionism by broadcasting sympathetic interviews with leading revisionist scholars and activists.” It noted in particular several interviews with IHR Director Mark Weber on the English-language service, and similar interviews with German-Canadian Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel in German and with Ahmed Rami in Arabic.

The most celebrated recipient of Iran’s largesse was Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, author of The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics. Garaudy was tried in France in January 1998 and fined according to the Gayssot law adopted in 1990, which bans denial of the Holocaust. As a former Marxist who converted to Islam, Garaudy also represented for Iranians and other Middle Eastern Muslims an additional angle—the superiority of Islam over the West, and hence Western attacks on him were perceived as part of the West’s attack on Islam. The Iranian media heaped praise on Garaudy’s “scholarship” and courage in exposing the Holocaust “big lie” and “myths,” and associated his claims and trial with Iran’s own animosity towards Jews, Zionism and the West. The conservative Resalat denounced the trial as a manifestation of “International Zionism’s” success in penetrating Western legal systems, thereby dealing “the most severe blow to the myth of democracy in Europe and America.” Unlike fascism and Nazism, which were limited and besieged, it stated, “the growth of Zionism in the West has perverted most Western political systems” and was directly correlated to the rule of capital in capitalist systems. Other newspapers used the case to expose the alleged fallacy of the Western democratic and liberal systems and ideology. Jomhuri-ye Eslami contended that “Garaudy’s trial in a country which claims to advocate freedom and democracy was a mockery of the international community’s intelligence.” It also “showed the falsehood of slogans of civilization and liberty in the hypocritical western society.” Kayhan International maintained that “putting the 84-year-old French Muslim thinker” on trial in today’s France was tantamount to the dawn of a dark era of witch hunts by those who claim that their country has been a cradle of the idea of “liberté.” It complained that in the “twisted logic of the French legal system,” Garaudy, whom it described as “one of the giants of French culture,” did not have the right to challenge Zionist myths and lies, while the author Salman Rushdie had the “right to say anything and everything” about the Prophet of Islam. The trial itself, it concluded later, was “a judicial holocaust.”

Iran’s political elite mobilized to offer its support and solidarity with Garaudy and his claims. In Tehran, 160 MPs and some 600 journalists signed petitions in his support. Students demonstrated in front of the French Embassy, while the Higher Council of the Iranian Cultural Revolution called upon the French government and judicial authorities “to end their anti-scientific, anti-cultural and worrying behavior and acquit” Garaudy. Likewise, the official Islamic Human Rights Committee protested to the French government against the “disrespect” for “the practice of freedom of speech.”

Prior to the trial, Rafsanjani urged Garaudy not to worry as the history of Islam and the revolution had had many victims like himself and the trial would “register him in history as a Muslim hero.” In a similar vein, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, secretary of the powerful Council of Guardians, called for Garaudy’s book to be “translated into all the languages of the Islamic states” and “distributed everywhere.” Referring to news that Jews were buying copies of the book to take it out of the market, Janati added that it would “be good business for businessmen. Let them continue to print it so that they [the Jews] would come to buy it. Eventually a few will reach others.” Even Khatami, who purported to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Judaism, chose Garaudy’s trial to contrast the flawed nature of Western democracies, which “do not tolerate what they consider to be opposed to their own interests,” with Islamic democracy that “tolerates opposition.”

Following his conviction, Garaudy was invited to Iran, where he was received by Supreme Leader Khamene’i, President Khatami and then Parliamentary Speaker cAli Akbar Nateq-Nuri. He was also invited to address the teachers and students of Iran’s top religious seminary, the Faiziyeh Madrasa, in the holy city of Qom. Iran also helped him pay the Fr120,000 fine imposed upon him.


Iran’s anti-Zionism is a modern political articulation of both old and new anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish beliefs. It is based on the belief in Jewish enmity against Islam from its inception and in the association of the Jews and Zionism with the Western cultural challenge and threat to Islam as a religion, identity and culture. It rejects the Jews” claim to peoplehood and regards it as an affront to Islam. The other crucial component is the nationalist-based linkage, which Iran, and particularly Ayatollah Khomeini, made between the Jews, Zionism and Western imperialism. It also borrows from modern anti-Semitic ideas produced in the West.

While the basis is Islamic, Iran articulates its anti-Semitism primarily in modern terms as anti-Zionism. As such, modern Iranian anti-Semitism differs from past Shici anti-Judaism and from most other Islamic movements in the Middle East which dwell more on the past “sins” of the Jews towards the Prophet Muhammad and elaborate on the evil traits of the Jews enumerated in the Qur’an. Occasionally, however, such themes that reveal the deeper anti-Jewish sentiment come to the fore in the Iranian discourse as well.

Iranian Holocaust denial, like other such manifestations in the Middle East, adopts the discourse and arguments of Western neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in order to grant it a pseudo-scientific value, particularly as these Westerners held seemingly objective views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Conceivably, this reliance reflected subtle or unconscious esteem for, together with resentment towards, the West or Western sources.

Iranian Holocaust denial is not a consequence of ignorance of historical facts. The great effort to provide denial with a pseudo-scientific basis reflects a certain awareness of the enormity of the valid evidence on the Holocaust. In addition, the exclusive reliance on Western Holocaust deniers is a product of selective and manipulative reading and borrowing of material published in the West, and a conscious disregard for the vast scholarly, publicist and literary output dealing with the Holocaust that does not suit the Iranians” ideological convictions. It is also reflective of the broader phenomenon of the narrow and superficial cultural borrowing from the West, which is typical of Islamist movements as a whole. However, whereas in Europe Holocaust deniers represent fringe elements that are still despised by mainstream intellectual and academic circles, in Iran the most senior government officials and media play the leading role in Holocaust denial, while endorsing the Western deniers. Consequently, the Iranian public is not exposed to the other more truthful aspect of history. While Iran professes to be anti-Nazi, such denial minimizes the extent and depth of Nazi evil and brutality.

The selective reading of the Western denial literature and the contradictory arguments raised by some of the Iranian writers raise the question of their own genuine belief in their own arguments and statements. It is very likely that ordinary Iranians, who are not exposed to the Western academic literature on the Holocaust, do believe the propaganda they are served. Concurrently, the growing skepticism among many young Iranians towards the overall ideological message of the Islamic regime may also apply to the regime’s allegations on the Holocaust. While it is impossible to make any intelligent guess about the writers themselves, it should be remembered that internal contradictions abound in anti-Semitic literature in other parts of the world as well. It appears that the psychological or political need to vilify a certain party, the Jews in this case, frees the accusers from the constraints of logic and consistency.

Iran’s Holocaust denial is a manifestation of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. Using the pretext of Zionist fabrication of the Holocaust, Iran distorts and denies Jewish history and deprives the Jews of their human dignity by presenting their worst tragedy as a scam, even though this has nothing to do with Zionism per se. The very claim of Zionist invention of the Holocaust appeals to the tendency in both European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism to charge the Jews with unscrupulous machinations in order to achieve illegitimate and immoral goals, mainly financial extortion. It aims at demolishing the legitimacy of the Jewish state, which they claim is based on the Holocaust myth. As such it is in tune with anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiments in Europe, which argue that the Jews forfeited their status as victims by victimizing the Palestinians, and that Israel does not have the right to exist because the human price it requires is too high.

In a similar vein, the vilification of the Zionists as Nazis is intended to offend the most painful feelings of the Jews by equating them with their worst tormentors. Moreover, not only does this accusation deprive the Jews of their dignity and transform victims into perpetrators, it threatens them with the ultimate fate of the Nazis. Concurrently, while Iran professes to be anti-Nazi, both Holocaust denial and the equation of Zionism with Nazism minimize the extent and depth of Nazi evil and brutality, thereby serving the cause of Western neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites.