The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum challenged Iranian Foreign Minister’s Mohammad Javad Zarif’s claim that his government has nothing to do with a Holocaust cartoon contest scheduled to take place in Tehran later this month.
Zarif asserted that the contest was neither “controlled” nor “endorsed” by the Iranian government in an interview with The New Yorker last week. He added that the contest didn’t require a permit, and that the only control the government exerted was by granting visas for participants.
However, in a statement on Friday, the museum observed “that the organizations associated with the contest are sponsored or supported by government entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Tehran Municipality, and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Previous contests in 2006 and 2015 have had the endorsement and support of government officials and agencies. There are reports in the Iranian press that the Ministry of Culture is asserting its support for the upcoming contest.”
Tad Stahnke, director of the museum’s initiative on Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, added that “[given] the Iranian Government’s past involvement with these events and its history of restricting unsanctioned speech, it will take much more effort on its part to distance itself from this contest.”
The museum’s questioning of Zarif’s comments followed a rebuttal by Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake on Tuesday. Lake cited an Iranian political cartoonist, Nik Kowsar, who had to flee Iran after receiving death threats for drawing anti-government cartoons. Kowsar told Lake that the cartoon contest couldn’t possibly take place without the approval of Iran’s Interior Ministry.
Lake also called Zarif’s implication that Iran can’t control the contest because it respects free speech “nonsense,” observing that “Iran arrests cartoonists for drawings that do not please the state, while its supreme leader is an avid Holocaust denier.”
He cited the case of Atena Farghadani, who was sentenced to prison for portraying Iran’s leaders as goats and monkeys. “She would be free today if only she had mocked the Nazi genocide against European Jewry,” Lake noted.
“The idea that they don’t control this contest is farcical,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, told Lake. “This is a country where you can be put in prison for liking something of Facebook, where the intelligence ministry monitors every tweet and every blog.”
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova sent a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in January calling the contest “completely opposed to the spirit of UNESCO and to actual programs and publications that UNESCO has been putting out for decades.”
Organizers of the cartoon contest are expecting to draw entries from over 50 countries and have promised the winner $50,000.
When he was appointed to serve as Rouhani’s foreign minister in 2013, a video surfaced of Zarif refusing to condemn the Holocaust. Rouhani himself, who like Zarif is often described as a moderate, refused to even say the word “Holocaust” when questioned by Christiane Amanpour of CNN in 2013.
Holocaust denial is a staple of the Iranian regime. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has frequently denied the genocide, and in January released a video denying it on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
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.
[ Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres / Flickr ]