In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

World Jewish body cautiously welcomes Iran outreach, but says words not enough

The World Jewish Congress offered cautious praise Friday for the “surprising….welcome” Rosh Hashanah greetings offered to the Jewish people by Iran's new president and foreign minister on Twitter this week, but said the Iranian leaders' welcome words of tolerance on the occasion of the Jewish new year's holiday should be followed by “concrete actions.”

“The Rosh Hashanah message to 'all Jews' — which includes those living in Israel — was a surprising gesture and a welcome change in tone compared with President Rouhani’s predecessor,” World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder said in a press statement Friday. “The comments attributed to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the Holocaust are also a step forward.”

However, Lauder continued, “words are meaningless if they are not backed up by credible actions. Until Iran ends its support for the enemies of the Jewish state, until it stops providing support to terrorist groups targeting Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide, and a regime that is gassing thousands of its own citizens in order to remain in power, these words sound hollow.”

“As the sun is about to set here in I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” Rouhani's official presidential English language Twitter account tweeted under his name on Wednesday, accompanied by a photo of a man praying at an Iranian synagogue.

“Happy Rosh Hashanah” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted from his new Twitter account Thursday, setting off a stunning exchange with Christine Pelosi, the daughter of ranking House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, about former Iranian President Mahmoud's Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and oft-expressed virulent hostility to Israel. The exchange, and Zarif's authorship of the tweets, was subsequently confirmed by Zarif to CNN's Christian Amanpour and journalist Robin Wright.

The display of Rosh Hashana Twitter diplomacy from Iran's new president and foreign minister has set off stunned amazement in the social media and western policy universe, as well as revealed continued wariness and disbelief in some quarters about how sincere or calculating the expressed sentiments may be. They have also reportedly set off some confusion in Tehran, and disgruntlement among conservative circles deeply invested in Iran's avowed policies of hostility to Israel.

Zarif sought to address the matter in an interview with Iranian media Friday, distinguishing Jewish people from Zionists, but the comments may do little to ease western criticism of Iran's policies towards the Jewish state.

“Jews aren’t our enemies,” Zarif told Iran's Tasnim news agency in an interview this week, Ali Hashem reported Friday from Tehran:

“Judaism is a divine religion that we respect in accordance with the teachings of our religion and our country's constitution.” [Zarif] added, “In the Islamic Republic of Iran Jewish compatriots are a recognized minority and in the parliament they have an active parliamentary member.”

“Zionists are a minority with the Jews,” he said. “They are exploiting the suffering of the Jews to justify their crimes against the Palestinians. We won’t allow them to propagate that Iran hates the Jews and that it's a country that wants war.” Zarif concluded, “The Zionists for 60 years used the Holocaust as a pretext for all the crimes against the Palestinians, the world should have a say on this so that the Palestinians won’t suffer for another 60 years in the name of the Holocaust.”