News Analysis: Iran's so-called Holocaust conference
CAIRO: Iran's so-called Holocaust conference earlier this week was billed as a chance to force the West to reconsider the historical record and, thereby, the legitimacy of Israel. The question, then, is why the Iranians would invite speakers with so little credibility in the West, including a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and disgraced European scholars.
But that question misses the point. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sees conference participants like David Duke, the former Louisiana Klan leader, and France's Robert Faurisson, who has devoted his life to trying to prove the Nazi gas chambers were a myth, as silenced truth-tellers whose stories expose Western leaders as the hypocrites he considers them to be.
Just as Soviet leaders used to invite Americans who suffered racial or political discrimination to Moscow to embarrass Washington, Ahmadinejad enjoys pointing out that countries like Germany, France and Austria claim to champion free debate yet make Holocaust denial illegal.
He has also repeatedly tried to draw moral equivalency between questioning the Holocaust and the decision in Europe last year to publish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. It wins him favor at home and across the Arab world for standing up to the West, and allows him to present himself as morally superior to the West.
But there is another important point. Ahmadinejad actually seems to believe that the volumes of documentation, testimony and living memory of the Nazi genocide are at best exaggerated and part of a Zionist conspiracy to falsify history so as to create the case for Israel. As a former member of the Revolutionary Guards, he was indoctrinated with such thinking, political analysts in Tehran said, and in fact as a radical student leader, he championed such a view.
Now he has a platform to promote his theories and try to position himself regionally as a reasonable man simply asking the hard questions. The meeting included no attempt to come to terms with the nature of the well-documented Nazi slaughter, offering only a platform to those pursuing the fantasy that it never happened. In addition, the organizers of the conference, a small circle around the president, have been building ties with neo-Nazi groups in Europe.
"He is connected to people in Iran who trust his way of doing things and who seriously believe the Holocaust did not take place," said Martin Ebbing, a German journalist based in Tehran who has closely followed the issue with the president. "They seriously believe it."
Evidence of that came in a revealing interview last May with the German magazine Der Spiegel. The interviewer mostly wanted to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions and its refusal to give up uranium enrichment, but the discussion kept returning to the Holocaust. At one point, the exasperated interviewer actually lectured the Iranian president on Germany's culpability.
"In our view, there is no doubt that the Germans unfortunately bear the guilt for the murder of six million," the Spiegel journalist said to Ahmadinejad.
The president gave little ground, saying Germans should rid themselves of such guilt. "I will only accept something as truth if I am actually convinced of it," he said.
Across the Middle East, contempt for Jews and Zionism is widespread and utterly mainstream. Many say the Holocaust has been wildly exaggerated and used to justify the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 at the expense of Palestinians, a move viewed as yet another example of Western imperialism.
Anti-Western rage fueled the 1979 Iranian revolution, and Ahmadinejad has tried to rekindle the energy of the revolution by spreading Iran's influence beyond its borders. Battling Washington, chiding Arab leaders and claiming to promote the Palestinian cause have made him extremely popular on the streets from Cairo to Morocco.
Such actions have also helped turn attention away from his inability so far to deliver on promises of economic populism, including a redistribution of Iran's enormous economic wealth and greater social justice for the bulk of the country that is struggling to make ends meet.
The president's ideas do not resonate in all corners of Iran, though, and some political scientists there say they have served to embarrass officials who, even if they agree, do not want to see a focus on Holocaust denial further isolate Iran.
"I raise two questions about this conference," said Ahmad Shirzad, a reformist politician and former member of Parliament. "First, how much does this solve the problems our people are faced with? And secondly, which one of our goals were realized? It looks like he wants to make news and do provocative things."
Others see an even more ambitious post-Iraq agenda reflected in Ahmadinejad's high profile on the issues of Jews, the Holocaust and Israel.
"It is for public consumption in Arab countries," said Mustafa El-Labbad, editor of Sharqnameh Magazine, which specializes in Iranian affairs and is published in Cairo. "It is specifically directed toward deepening the gap between the people and their regimes and toward embarrassing the rulers so that the regional power vacuum, especially after Iraq, can be filled by Iran."