Iran’s top leader questioned whether the Holocaust ever occurred in a speech on Friday marking the country’s New Year.
In a speech on the occasion of Nowruz, Iran’s New Year, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called into question whether the Holocaust in Europe had ever occurred. According to Khamenei’s official Twitter account, during the speech the Supreme Leader of Iran said the “Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened.”
#Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) March 21, 2014
The remark came in the context of Khamenei’s discussion on the importance of culture to a nation’s strength. After emphasizing the importance of culture, which he said took priority over the economy, Khamenei rhetorically asked whether the state upholding culture was in contention with freedom, which he claimed was another principle of the Islamic Republic. He ultimately decided that it was not at odds with freedom because, again according to Khamenei’s Twitter account, “Absolute #freedom doesn’t exist anywhere in world. Even countries that claim 2 have freedom, set redlines on which they’re utterly strict.”
He continued: “Does anybody dare talk about #Holocaust in Europe? #freedom. #Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened. They treat their redlines in such manner. How can they expect us to neglect our faith’s redlines?”
The context of Khamenei’s questioning of the Holocaust is significant because it directly mirrors former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s equally contentious remarks about the Holocaust during his time in office. Ahmadinejad rendered Iran an international pariah in no small part because of his remarks about the Holocaust, as well as holding conferences in Iran featuring prominent anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.
However, Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denials were almost always framed as a way to draw attention to the fact that denying the existence of the Holocaust is illegal in many European countries, which he sought to cast as a freedom of speech issue. For example, when he held conferences in Iran on the Holocaust, he often invited people from the West who had been prosecuted for denying the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad also frequently called for there to be more research done into the existence of the Holocaust, apparently in the belief that enough has not been done to prove it actually happened.
That Khamenei would parrot Ahmadinejad’s argument is interesting because the two men had a very public falling out during Ahmadinejad’s second term in office. Even today, some of the former president’s top aides are being arrested in Iran.
That being said, the remarks weren’t entirely out of character for Khamenei himself. Khamenei frequently describes Israel (or at least Zionism) in the most despicable of terms, and calls for its destruction. In one of his most offensive moments in 2001, Khamenei was quoted as saying, “There is evidence which shows that Zionists had close relations with German Nazis and exaggerated statistics on Jewish killings.” Similarly, after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Khamenei noted that in the West, “casting doubt or negating the genocide of the Jews is banned but insulting the beliefs of 15 billion Muslims is allowed.”
Khamenei’s Holocaust denial on Friday is also significant in that it is at direct odds with the line taken by Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani. Since taking office, Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif have gone to great lengths to counter the widespread perception (from the Ahmadinejad era, largely) that Iran is anti-Semitic. Both have acknowledged Jewish holidays on Twitter and Rouhani has explicitly acknowledged the large scale killings of Jews in Europe during WWII in interviews with Western media outlets.
Khamenei’s clear deviation from Rouhani on this issue stands in contrast to the support the Supreme Leader has given the president in his ongoing diplomacy with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. It may be that Supreme Leader Khamenei is growing uncomfortable with some of the culture policies Rouhani has been promoting recently. There have been other indications of that as of late, however, none of those had as many implications for Iran’s foreign relations as Khamenei questioning the Holocaust.