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Why did Iran's Khamenei Question the Holocaust on Nowruz?

By Jasmin Ramsey (source: LobeLog)

Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

When former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s final term ended in August 2013, many Iranians at home and abroad hoped they could put his Holocaust-denying ways behind them. That hope was enhanced by incoming Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s public notice that the government of Hassan Rouhani would not engage in the same contemptible behavior.

Both Zarif and Rouhani sent out Jewish New Year Greetings through their English-language Twitter accounts. Zarif also publicly reminded Nancy Pelosi’s daughter that Ahmadinejad and what he was “perceived” as doing no longer had a place in Rouhani’s government.

In the same month, Rouhani — who was pressed on the issue throughout his visit to New York for the UN General Assembly in September 2013 — called the Holocaust a Nazi-orchestrated “massacre that cannot be denied” to a group of reporters, but said he would leave the number of deaths to the “historians” in an interview with NBC. This careful choice of wording was an early indication of the political tightrope the new president would be walking throughout his term, one that may turn out to be a Catch-22 situation.

Indeed, whatever Rouhani’s personal views may be, on one hand, he has to resist offending powerful Iranian hardliners — contemptible views or not — so that he can push through policies that they will undoubtedy resist, such as a fair nuclear deal they that they will portray as too conciliatory to the West. On the other hand, if Rouhani seems too close to these actors, Iran’s negotiating partners in the P5+1, particularly the United States, may be left with insufficient domestic leverage to continue dealing with him.

Ahmadinejad was not liked by Western leaders for many reasons, including his support for the violent government crackdown on peaceful protests against his reelection in 2009. When he began calling the Holocaust a “myth,” Western leaders didn’t even want to be in the same room with him.

Not long after Iran seemed to have settled back down following the repression of the 2009 protests, Ahmadinejad even lost the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who had uncharacteristically initially supported his reelection. By aiming for more of the power cake in Iran than ruling elites saw fit, Ahmadinejad bit the hands of his feeders, and they simply withdrew the supply. For at least the last two years of his presidency, Ahmadinejad was referred to as a “lame duck,” and mostly ignored or sidelined by both powerful foreign governments and influential actors at home.

While Iranian hardliners and some reformists have criticized and denounced Rouhani thus far — the interim deal gave away too much for too little; why are more political prisoners not being released — it’s important to remember that Khamenei endorsed Iran’s negotiators and even called for domestic critics to quiet down during the talks that led to the November 24 deal reached in Geneva. But Khamenei’s decision to question the Holocaust during a speech on the first day of the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) — a day after headlines appeared about a a possible Israeli strike on Iran — is, even if unintentionally, a break from that support. Now, in addition to the extremely difficult task of reaching another historic deal that will finally end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, Zarif will need to figure out what to say to reporters about Khamenei’s comments. And those who share Khamenei’s virulent views and oppose Rouhani will surely be emboldened.

It remains to be seen why Khamenei chose Nowruz — literally the “new day” in Iran — to question one of history’s most horrifying and despicable events, or how representatives of Rouhani’s government will navigate the criticism that will follow. (Recently some commentators have been suggesting that the rise in executions in Iran since Rouhani took office has been a ploy by Iranian hardliners to undermine Rouhani, who campaigned on a platform of “prudence and hope”. Or, perhaps Khamenei simply felt it was time to remind his largest constituency that he will never change his ways, in this case presenting himself as so independent that he will even touch supposedly untouchable topics.)

What is certain is that Rouhani’s government came to power with an intent to change, at the very least, the negative way in which Iran is perceived abroad, and it will continue to face domestically rooted challenges like this as it goes forward. This will be especially true as Rouhani and Zarif try to achieve a final nuclear deal, an event that could ultimately remove one of the most serious impediments to better Iranian relations with the Western powers.


avatarAbout the Author: Jasmin Ramsey is the managing editor of LobeLog and a journalist with a special focus on US-Iran relations whose articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications including Inter Press Service, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, Le Monde Diplomatique and Guernica Magazine. You can email her at


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