Zarif’s charm offensive continues – with a deceptive defence of the regime’s Holocaust Denial

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been hard at work attempting to persuade the international community of Iran’s “trustworthy” image. He faces challenges, with just this week Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying in a meeting with terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad said that the United States is the Middle East’s main enemy, with the “Zionist regime” a close second. Nevertheless, Zarif’s public relations campaign is in full swing, as seen from his interview with Robin Wright of the New Yorker on April 25. This follows on from Zarif’s media offensive when he was in Australia in March, which was dissected by AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein in the Canberra Times some weeks ago.

The New Yorker interview highlights Zarif’s excuses and cover-ups for Iranian terrorism and Holocaust Denial. He also suggests the nuclear deal is fraying, blaming the US for the reluctance of Western banks to do business with Iran, while ignoring Iran’s poor banking regulations.

Zarif’s deception was on full display when the New Yorker asked why Iran would host a cartoon competition on Holocaust Denial. Zarif said, “It’s not Iran. It’s an N.G.O. that is not controlled by the Iranian government. Nor is it endorsed by the Iranian government.” Zarif appears to have flat out lied, as the website of the organisation hosting the competition states that it is sponsored by the Municipality of Teheran. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has also challenged Zarif’s claim and said in a statement:

“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,” adding “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.”

When the New Yorker asked why Iran would allow a cartoon festival on the Holocaust, Zarif said, “Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan? Is the government of the United States responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the United States?” However, Eli Lake in an article in Bloomberg tears apart Zarif’s response, he writes:

“Nik Kowsar, an Iranian cartoonist who fled Iran in 2003 under death threats for his anti-government cartoons, told me that the Cartoon House also must receive permission from Iran’s interior ministry to host its biennial exhibition.
Zarif’s attempt to draw a Klan parallel also fails. He’s pretending Iran has free speech protections like the U.S. does. The First Amendment makes the Klan possible, the logic goes, and so Iran’s society allows a few Holocaust deniers, he says. But this is nonsense. Iran arrests cartoonists for drawings that do not please the state, while its supreme leader is an avid Holocaust denier.”

In any case, outside of the cartoon competition, for years Iranian officials have promoted Holocaust Denial, as Michael Rubin writes in Commentary:

“After all, long before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shocked diplomats with his blunt Holocaust denial, none other than the administration of Mohammad Khatami – a man often described as a reformist – was feting Holocaust deniers at an institute run by the Foreign Ministry. Regardless, after Rouhani’s tweet, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei mocked the Holocaust with a video released to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Now, the latest example of the Islamic Republic’s true colors comes again courtesy of the supreme leader. Middle East analyst Tom Gross points out:
‘In a Twitter post to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Monday tweeted that he particularly likes ‘The Merchant of Venice’ as a play ‘being in accordance with Western values.’ ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is, of course, infamous for its portrayal of the greedy and scheming fictional Jewish character Shylock. Khamenei has a long record of making anti-Semitic statements.'”

Moreover, Zarif has also been known to refuse to condemn the Holocaust, according to the Tower:

“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.”

In the New Yorker interview, Zarif also whitewashed Iran’s involvement in international terrorism. When Zarif was asked about the recent US Supreme Court ruling that found Iran’s Central Bank has to pay two billion dollars to victims of terror acts linked to Iran, particularly the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon, which killed 241 US servicemen, Zarif described the judgment as a “huge theft”. However, Zarif did not address that the Beirut bombing had been traced to the Shi’ite Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, which is sponsored by Iran.

In the New Yorker interview Zarif also attempted to place blame on the US for not holding up its part of the Iran nuclear deal. Zarif said that while the nuclear deal is in place, “if one side does not comply with the agreement then the agreement will start to falter,” hinting at an Iranian threat to walk away.

While the Iran nuclear deal was officially “implemented” in January with world powers lifting sanctions, according US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran has reportedly seen only around US$3 billion in sanctions relief, instead of the US$150 billion predicted. Iran is claiming that the US must do more to assure Western banks that they can do business with Iran. While the US does retain some non-nuclear related sanctions on Iran regarding Iran’s support for terrorism and human rights abuses, many experts believe that the main reason Western banks are avoiding business with Iran is due to Iran’s problematic approach to financial issues including tax avoidance, financial reporting and money laundering. Therefore, in the wake of Iranian criticisms, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute suggests that the US should go on the offensive. He writes:

“Rather than implicitly accepting Zarif’s formulation that the U.S. government has to reassure European banks, Washington should instead point out that if Iran wants to enjoy the fruits of the nuclear deal, it must join the rest of the world in implementing the tough standards adopted over the past decade regarding tax avoidance, financial reporting, money laundering, and other issues. The message should be clear: any financial institution that fails to implement those standards, no matter what country it calls home, will be under close U.S. scrutiny.”

Zarif is clearly an expert diplomat with smooth plausible-sounding answers to difficult questions, but as even basic analysis of the New Yorker interview highlights, a little bit of scrutiny reveals that he is often engaged in the art of deception, and he must be called out on such lies.

Article by Sharyn Mittelman is on the AIJAC website