One of the more significant fault lines of the Iran nuclear deal had to do with whether the character of the Iranian regime would have any bearing on the viability of a future agreement. After all, many supporters of the deal readily conceded that Iran’s government is a religious autocracy animated by an anti-American, anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic ideology. In spite of this, they also argued that the Tehran regime was rational enough, and the international system robust enough, to ensure the decades-long implementation of a complex arms control agreement, something President Barack Obama alluded in a May 2015 interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “The fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival,” said Obama. “It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that [Iran’s] supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”
Is that really true? The Iran deal has provisions that don’t expire for another 25 years, meaning the coming decades will likely reveal whether or not Iran’s state ideology is totally disconnected from its behavior in the nuclear realm, and whether a reengagement with the international community can reduce that ideology’s virulence or influence. So far, not so good, at least on the latter point.
This week marks the return of one of the Iranian government’s iconic, anti-Semitic excesses, an event straight out of the supposedly less-enlightened Ahmadinejad era. This weekend, the third edition of the International Holocaust Cartoon Contest will be held in Tehran. It will be the first post-nuclear deal Holocaust cartoon contest, an event first staged in 2006. (You can check out the winners (so to speak) from the inaugural competition here.)
The mere existence of the contest’s 2016 edition is a litmus test for how the Iranian regime plans on coping with a post-deal environment in which diplomacy and ideology may occasionally work at cross-purposes. On April 25, Javad Zarif, Iran’s brilliant foreign minister and someone who has himself espoused agnosticism on the historicity of the Holocaust, claimed in an interview with The New Yorker that the Iranian government had nothing to do with the cartoon contest, which he said was the work of “an N.G.O. that is not controlled by the Iranian government.”
This is transparent nonsense. According to IranWire, an Iran-focused news website founded by the Iranian-Canadian journalist and press freedom activist Mazier Bahari, the contest is partly the work of Iran’s Islamic Propaganda Organization, which is “under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei,” along with the “Owj Media and Arts Organization, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.” A statement from the United States Holocaust Memorial museum adds that there are reports in Iran’s heavily-censored press that Iran’s Ministry of Culture supports the contest as well.
The truth-value of Zarif’s statements is less interesting than the tensions that his dishonesty exposes. Zarif’s mission has been to reduce international pressure on Iran without surrendering core regime interests in the process. Judging by Bashar al-Assad’s secure position in Syria, the removal of most international sanctions against Iran, and the continued existence of the country’s industrial-scale uranium enrichment and ballistic missile program, Zarif’s done an estimable job. On the other hand, the mission of Iran’s supreme leader, and, to a lesser extent, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is to continue the country’s Islamic Revolution and to conserve the ideological trappings of the state.
The cartoon contest is one instance in which diplomacy and state ideology rub up against one another: It hurts Iran’s international reputation, and its international standing, for its government to be sponsoring competitive Holocaust denial. How convenient it would be for Zarif if diplomacy and ideology magically weren’t in conflict anymore: if it were possible for the Iranian regime to reengage with the world without the pestering embarrassment of the government’s anti-Semitism getting in the way. To that end, Zarif has attempted to obfuscate the anti-Semitism of his regime out of existence. In the New Yorker interview, he argued that the cartoon contest was no more a reflection of state policy than a Klan rally in the United States, as if the government’s relationship with the broader public discourse were identical in both countries: “Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan? Is the government of the United States responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the United States?” Zarif asked. “When you stop your own organizations from doing things, then you can ask others to do likewise.”
Zarif’s effectiveness as a diplomat lies partly in his ability to conceal the nature of the regime he serves, and to reduce the status of its ideology, and the beliefs and objectives of its top leadership, to a distracting sideline issue. The regime’s anti-Semitism might not end up mattering, as far as the narrow question of the nuclear deal’s implementation is concerned. But it’s still there, a chilling and deeply inconvenient inconvenient reminder of how the regime’s top leadership actually views the world, and its place within it.
Related: What The Islamists Get Right