Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Denying the Holocaust for Political Advantage?

Michael Scott Moore, Spiegel Online:
Should Israel move to Alaska? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once again called for Israel to be moved on Wednesday. And this time, he went ahead and denied the Holocaust as well. But why? SPIEGEL ONLINE went to Iran expert Ali Ansari for answers.

Once again, the international response was swift and unequivocal. "Shocking and totally unacceptable," said Germany's new foreign minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier. "Thank God Israel has the means to end the extremist regime in Iran," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Dozens of other world leaders joined in the chorus of dismay.

At issue, once again, are comments made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Israel, Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday, should be moved out of the Middle East -- a reiteration of similar comments made a week ago which earned him a rebuke not only from world leaders, but also from the United Nations. This time, though, he went a step further and referred to the Holocaust as a "myth."

Speaking before thousands in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan, Ahmadinejad said, referring to Europeans, "Today, they have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it to be above God, religion and the prophets." In reiterating his demands from last week that Israel be moved, he said, "This is our proposal: give a part of your own land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to (the Jews) so that the Jews can establish their country." READ MORE

Ahmadinejad's comments on Wednesday are the third time since his June election that he has attracted the ire of the world for his comments on Israel. In October, he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Sharon spokesman Gissin reacted this time by saying "there will be no second Final Solution." But he denied that Israel has specific plans to attack Iran's suspected nuclear facilities the way it destroyed a reactor in Iraq with a sudden air strike in 1981.

So what, exactly, is Ahmadinejad up to with his hate mongering? To find out, SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at Scotland's St. Andrews University. Ahmadinejad, he says, seems intent on reversing Iran's move towards modernization.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Dr. Ansari, this is the third time Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spoken of either destroying or moving Israel. Is he serious?

Ansari: I think he's serious. I think he thinks he's serious. But his enemies, even in Iran, must be rubbing their hands.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who are his comments on Israel and the Holocaust intended for?

Ansari: It will help him with a particular constituency in Iran. We have to remember there may be about 5 million people in Iran of that particular ilk, who want to hear the things he's saying. Even among the people who believe him, though -- here I'm talking about the conservative political management -- he's getting a little out of hand. While they may agree with him, they think he's getting tactically out of hand.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Out of hand for what reason? Are they worried about the international reaction at all?

Ansari: I think most Iranians have gotten used to him, because he says these kinds of things all the time. But they may be quite embarrassed by the international reaction. A sense of honor is very important in Iran, and what people feel is almost as important as what people think. So people might feel they're being embarrassed -- even if they agree with his ideas -- and this will have an impact. Remember that he's moved beyond just saying that Israel is a problem. You can say 'Israel is a problem,' and many people in the Middle East will agree with you. But he's moved qualitatively away from that particular argument. There is a Jewish population in Iran that is not insignificant, and to say the Holocaust is a myth is to give up any hope of working with them politically. To say the Holocaust is a myth, as a private person, might be one thing; but for a leader to say it is something else.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Internationally, the only times we hear from Ahmadinejad are when he talks about Israel. What do people in Iran think about him otherwise?

Ansari: I think where he really crossed the line where the domestic audience is concerned is when he said a green aura was coming out of his head during his speech to the United Nations. This conversation got filmed, and people can watch it on DVD. Ahmadinejad came home from his speech and told an ayatollah that everyone at the General Assembly -- all these world leaders -- didn't even blink for thirty minutes (out of awe). Lots of people have seen this in Iran, and it makes him seem a bit too superstitious.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are his comments tactical in any way -- part of Iran's attempt to get nuclear weapons?

Ansari: It's got nothing to do with the nuclear thing at all, but it will have an impact.


Ansari: Because basically Israel and others can say look, how can we let this country have nuclear weapons? An Iranian official told me that even if Israel and the United States had spent 'a billion dollars in propaganda against us,' they could not have done a better job. In that sense he's a gift. The Israelis are rubbing their hands in glee.