In a recent issue of National Interest, former CIA analyst Paul Pillar lamented “the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran.” The comparison, he argues, is “an emotion-based effort to foster distaste for doing any business with such an ogre-like regime,” which exaggerates the regime’s sinister disposition at a moment when it is showing a clear desire to become “a more integrated member of the international community.”
In fact, Pillar speaks for a sizable group of foreign policy commentators, including Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Daniel Brumberg of the United States Institute of Peace, Ryan Costello of the National Iranian American Council, and Ariane Tabatabaei at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They contend that a nuclear deal would facilitate a US-Iran détente and forge a new moderate course in Tehran.
Furthermore, Pillar has a point because the differences between the Islamic Republic and Nazi Germany are significant.
For one, Iran is not the industrial powerhouse that Germany was in the 1930s, though it could quickly become one once its economy is unshackled from crippling international sanctions. Iran’s regular military is ill-equipped, poorly trained, and underfunded. There is no Iranian Rommel ready to send tank divisions storming into neighboring countries (though Iran does have plenty of ruthless and well-trained proxies ready to fight on its behalf).
And Iran is not a totalitarian monolith. It might be possible to cut a deal with Tehran, which in turn might facilitate American-Iranian engagement. As President Obama recently told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk.”
But what about other countries, such as Israel? Is President Obama putting that nation at risk?
When the Israeli government looks at Iran it sees dimensions of its behavior that Pillar—and those who agree with him—blithely dismiss. The Islamic Republic, for example, openly calls for Israel’s destruction while investing considerably in those who fight Israel at its borders. Iran may have no Afrika Korps, but it possesses dangerous capabilities—and proven intentions—to use them.
These intentions invite a direct comparison of Iran with Nazi Germany. For decades, Iranian leaders have accused the world of exaggerating Jewish suffering in order to legitimize Israel’s existence and excuse the Jewish state’s actions, while assiduously promoting the spread of Holocaust denial and acting as a safe haven, sponsor, and sounding board for its advocates.
Last October, Iran organized a new edition of the “New Horizons” conference, an international gathering of Western Holocaust deniers, advocates of boycotting Israel, 9/11 “Truthers,” and other conspiracy theorists. This month, Tehran is hosting the second international Holocaust cartoon contest. Iranian officials present these events, in part, as a response to the West’s satirical attacks on Islam, although the Iranian government’s denial of the Holocaust predates the recent wave of cartoons mocking Mohammad.
Indeed, Iran’s Holocaust denial, like the regime’s anti-Semitism, follows a Nazi script. As Bettina Stangneth brilliantly notes in her recent biography of Adolf Eichmann, the first to call the Holocaust a fabrication were the Nazis themselves.
After the war, Nazi fugitives who fled to South America and the Middle East sought to obfuscate their own part in the twentieth century’s worst crime with hope that Nazism could yet make a comeback. They depicted the Holocaust as a gigantic lie that Jews concocted in order to smear German reputation; and so they could pose as victims and blackmail the world to support their dark designs.
But theirs was not just an effort to rehabilitate Nazism. They were also seeking allies—in the Middle Eastern and elsewhere—who could finish the job. And Arab nationalism, with its resolve to eradicate both Western influence and Israel’s existence from the region, was the perfect candidate. Nazi-era war criminals like Alois Brunner, who died in Syria, and Johann von Leers, who died in Egypt, worked in the service of propaganda departments of Arab nationalist regimes, and introduced Holocaust denial to the Arab world as a staple of anti-Zionist propaganda.
From there, the wave of Holocaust denialism made its way to Iran, where both secular and religious opponents of the Shah embraced themes of modern anti-Semitism, which they had absorbed from radical left circles in Europe, and Islamists in the Middle East. These Iranians viewed Israel as an extension of the hated American superpower, and found the theme of Jewish world domination a compelling scapegoat through which to express their rage. And once the revolutionaries gained power, those themes became so integral to the new regime’s world view that the embarrassment they would later cause—brazen Holocaust denial did not exactly endear Iran to Western audiences—was always treated as an inconvenience to manage, and not a nefarious libel to discard.
As Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian-American Council, conceded in his 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance, domestic opposition to Holocaust denial during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was merely expedient. Its critics viewed it as damaging to Iran’s image; they did not argue its merits.
According to Parsi, when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei realized that Ahmadinejad’s incendiary rhetoric on the Holocaust was damaging Iran’s nuclear stance, he moved to prohibit flat-out Holocaust denial in order to safeguard Iran’s international image. But the regime could not completely turn its back to it. Instead, Iran’s leaders shifted their rhetoric to a softer version of Holocaust denial. Rather than flatly denying its historicity, they spun support for Holocaust revisionist historians as a free speech exercise and a legitimate historical inquiry. This spin was designed to show that, regardless of the magnitude of Nazi atrocities, the Zionists had callously exploited them in orderto blackmail world opinion in support of their Palestine grab. This new theme is not as brazen as accusing the Jews of “having staged the whole thing themselves,” as writes Bettina Stengneth’s in Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which Nazi fugitives posited in the 1950s. But it’s close enough.
Despite his reputed moderate credentials, current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fully embraces this new, softer version. In September 2013, when CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour confronted him over Holocaust denial, Rouhani dodged the question by pontificating that the Holocaust deserves more historical scrutiny to determine what really happened: “What the Nazis did is condemnable,” he said. “The dimensions of whatever it is, the historians have to understand what it is.”
Rouhani then went on to repeat the accusation that the Holocaust is a pretext for Israel’s actions. “I am not a historian myself,” Rouhani said, “but we—it must be clear here—is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people.”
Given how entrenched and pervasive Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are within the Iranian regime, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the regime’s principal motivation for embracing this narrative is to provide justification for its recurrence. Holocaust deniers, after all, have long sought to excuse the crime’s perpetrators and shift guilt onto its victims as a prelude to repeating that same crime.
But maybe Pillar is correct. Maybe the time, effort, and resources that Iran devotes to demonizing Israel and foraging Israel’s sworn enemies are not indicative of any serious intentions. Maybe its just rhetoric. And yet it’s intellectually dishonest to not admit that the opposite might also be true. After all, what would cause Iranian leaders to defame the memory of the Holocaust so obsessively, other than deeply malevolent intentions?
Even under its current, more presentable incarnation, the Iranian regime embraces Nazi-like fantasies. The United States can certainly afford to take a calculated risk and assume that Iran will never act on them. But if Obama’s gamble falls flat, it won’t be the Americans who will pay the price.
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Emanuele Ottolenghi (@eottolenghi) is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.