“Observe that no one in Europe dares to speak about the Holocaust even though it’s not clear what the reality is about it, whether it even has a reality, or how it happened,” said Iran’s ruling cleric, Ali Khamenei, in a March 21 speech.
“Expressing an opinion or doubts about the Holocaust is considered to be one of the greatest of sins [in Europe] where someone can get stopped, arrested, sued or imprisoned for this offense.”
The ayatollah’s recent comments on the Holocaust were part of a longer speech that was a scorching stemwinder against the West and Iranians who embrace Western ways. Holocaust revisionism is part of Mr. Khamenei’s resistance to a world organized around Western norms and history. Other strategies include developing Iran’s nuclear program, making its economy more sanctions-proof, and maintaining a religious culture capable of closing the “cracks” opened by the allure of a deviant Occident.
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Many observers, including some within the Obama administration, have sought to play down the matter of Iranian Holocaust denial. So have many Iranians and Westerners who sincerely want to get past the nuclear issue and see Iran reintegrated into the world—Holocaust denial is just too awkward and painful to examine. It’s an aberration, many insist, nasty insecure rhetoric without roots in Persian culture. In truth it is a symptom of a worldview utterly at odds with our own. It strongly suggests that Mr. Khamenei’s republic will endure great economic hardship to realize its dream of becoming a nuclear power.
Holocaust revisionism permeates and defines the Iranian regime. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously supported a research mission to Poland in 2005 to investigate whether millions of Jews could have died at Auschwitz. (Poland’s foreign ministry turned down the request.) Today, in addition to Supreme Leader Khamenei, commanders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps—who oversee Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist operations—embrace Holocaust-denial with gusto.
Even the “moderate” president elected last year, Hasan Rouhani, danced around the subject of the Holocaust in his interview last September with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, saying it was up to historians to decide—as if they hadn’t already—the true “dimensions” of Nazi slaughter. Mr. Rouhani didn’t deny that the Germans killed Jews, but he grouped them with other victims of Nazi barbarism.
The Tehran regime’s Holocaust reflections spring in great part from two sources. First, a passionate belief in the awesome conspiratorial power of Jews, whom the Iranians allege have long malignly pulled the strings in the U.S. Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, once the “moderate” mentor of Mr. Rouhani, can wax on, as he once did in a Friday sermon, about how “Jewish capitalism” controls America and, via America, the West. For Mr. Rafsanjani, Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a movement are both “immersed” in imperialism, against which the “most fundamental danger . . . is the Islamic world.”
Many Iranian revolutionaries appear to be a bit flummoxed by the contradiction of the all-powerful Jews losing more than half their number to the Nazis. The common refrain that one hears among pan-Arab nationalists and Muslim Brotherhood types—that Hitler didn’t go far enough—isn’t widespread among Iran’s Islamic militants. For them, Holocaust denial restores some logic to history: If they can assert that Hitler did not kill six million Jews, the Holocaust can be labeled a narrative spun by Jews to engender guilt and special advantages over Muslims and others. In that light, Holocaust denial is both moral and politically essential.
The second main reason for denying the Holocaust: Doing so implicitly negates the need for Israel’s existence. None of this means that Tehran is likely to unleash a nuclear Armageddon against Israel. Mr. Khamenei and his guards are wary of American military power and have generally preferred to use cutouts like Hezbollah in their lethal actions against Israelis and Jews. The Iranian ruling elite is well aware of Jerusalem’s nuclear and conventional capabilities.
It is not credible, though, to think that the Jew-obsessed revolutionary Iranian imagination would cease its three-decade-old effort to obtain nuclear arms just because Mr. Khamenei now wants greater access to hard currency—which is the essence of our sanctions policy and the primary Western leverage in the nuclear talks. The supreme leader’s March 21 speech, like most of his discourses, is ultimately about creating an Islamic bloc, led by Iran, that is capable of turning back Judeo-Western imperialism.
For Mr. Khamenei, this is a cultural, religious, economic and military mission. Nuclear weapons, or at least a nuclear-weapons capability that could produce a bomb quickly, is an essential component of the mission, worth the tens of billions of dollars that the regime has lavished on the project since its inception.
The regime’s Holocaust rhetoric ought to signal to us that Iran’s clerical overlord lives in an alternate reality, where good and evil are reinterpreted if not reversed. Ayatollah Khamenei emphatically does not want what President Obama keeps offering him, “a new relationship between our two countries . . . [where] Iran could begin to return to its rightful place among the community of nations.” Modern Westerners, for whom religion has been secularized and tamed, have a hard time dealing with a “clash of civilizations” based on faith. Mr. Khamenei and his men have no such problem.
For Americans and Europeans, the current nuclear negotiations are at heart a technical challenge, one where we try to find the right verifiable limitations on uranium enrichment, heavy-water plutonium production and ballistic-missile development to ensure that Tehran can’t develop a nuke. For Iranians, the nuclear talks are a subset of a much larger religious conflict. The six million murdered Jews aren’t just an outrageous fiction for the supreme leader, they’re a devious way to bind him to an ethical universe where, as Mr. Khamenei said in his speech, “cultural vandals” inject “doubt and atheism . . . hedonism and decadence” into the faithful Iranian people.
The Iranian regime is unlikely now to be humbled by Western officials—those diplomats who are so well-briefed in their nuclear dossiers, so hopeful that economics is the universal religion, so discomfited when their negotiating partners start railing about Jews and the Holocaust.
Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.