Iran’s presumptive president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, heads to New York today to once again address the United Nations General Assembly. And once again, he has prefaced his address to the world body with yet another jibe at Holocaust history.
Last Friday, during Iran’s annual Jerusalem Day festivities—an occasion for Iranians to show solidarity with Palestinians—Ahmadinejad told an assembled crowd at the University of Tehran that “the pretext for establishing the Zionist regime is a lie ... a lie which relies on an unreliable claim.”
Whether or not Ahmadinejad actually believes what he says about the Holocaust is irrelevant. What matters is that the world must not be goaded into falling into the trap he is setting for us.
“The occupation of Palestine has nothing to do with the Holocaust,” Ahmadinejad continued. “The very existence of this regime is an insult to the dignity of the people, but it won't last long. The Israeli regime’s days are numbered and it is on its way to collapse. This regime is dying. Fighting it is a national and religious duty. The West has launched the myth of the Holocaust but it’s a lie.”
Right on cue, the U.S. media went into hysterics—“Ahmadinejad Denies Holocaust… Again!” was the headline at The Daily Beast—just as Ahmadinejad hoped they would.
Do not let the rumpled suit and unkempt beard fool you: This is a man who knows how to manipulate the media and has done so brilliantly time and again. It is no coincidence that prior to every single visit to the United States he has made some outlandish comment about the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad knows that once he arrives in the States, the press will ask him about nothing else except for his Holocaust statements. In fact, he banks on it. Better to have a 20-minute conversation about the vagaries of 20th-century history than about, say, Iran’s crumbling economy and his disastrous stewardship of it, or the continuing demonstrations of an emboldened protest movement, or the nearly wholesale rejection of his regime by the clerical class and the denunciation of almost all the grand ayatollahs in Iran, or the dissolution of his conservative coalition, which has fractured in the wake of widespread accusations about the rape and torture of political prisoners, etc.
No, let’s talk about the Holocaust instead.
The truth is that Ahmadinejad has never actually denied that the Holocaust took place. He is far too wily a politician for that. Instead he does something far more insidious and sinister. He challenges what he calls the “mythology” (and I use that term deliberately to mean “a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular event, arising either naturally or deliberately fostered”) that surrounds the very real, historical facts of the Holocaust.
Ahmadinejad never comes right out and says the Holocaust didn’t happen. Instead he will say something to the effect of: “If the Holocaust happened, why must the Palestinians suffer the consequences of Europe’s crimes? Why not give half of Germany to the Jews.”
That is how he panders to the Arab street.
Or he’ll say something like: “Let’s say the Holocaust happened. Why is it that in certain European countries—countries that claim to have invented the very concept of free speech—people can go to jail for questioning the orthodox history of the Holocaust.”
That, frankly, is good point.
Or he will confess, as he did in a letter to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, that his confusion about the Holocaust comes from his refusal to accept that a nation as “civilized” as Germany could be capable of such monstrous acts, knowing full well that the German response will be, “Yes, we are monsters. We are history’s most monstrous villains!”
As artless and callow as such statements may be, they are nevertheless an indication of how Ahmadinejad skillfully draws attention away from issues that actually matter—e.g., Iran’s economy or its human-rights violations—by focusing everyone’s attention on issues that may be emotive and visceral but which in fact have absolutely no bearing on the most urgent matters at hand.
There are those in the U.S. and in Israel who argue that Ahmadinejad’s views on the Holocaust are of utmost importance in understanding Iranian policy. I have heard more than one influential foreign-policy analyst argue that the Iranian president’s beliefs regarding the Holocaust are what drives Iran’s nuclear program, that Ahmadinejad wishes to finish what he refuses to believe the Nazis started.
This is absurd. First of all, Ahmadinejad has no say in Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, the security clearance of the president of Iran is not high enough to even look at the country’s nuclear dossier, let alone make decisions about it (that right rests in the hands of the Supreme National Security Council, of which Ahmadinejad is not a member).
But, more importantly, Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust comments must be understood as nothing more than the pandering of a politician (that is, pandering to the Arab street, not Iranians). It bears mentioning that every high-school student in Iran is taught about the events of World War II, including the Nazi extermination of Jews. In fact, I once asked an Iranian friend if he was embarrassed at Ahmadinejad’s ignorance of world events. He replied that he was no more embarrassed than I must be when President George W. Bush says that the world is 6,000 years old.
Whether or not Ahmadinejad actually believes what he says about the Holocaust is irrelevant. What matters is that the world must not be goaded into taking the bait and falling into the trap he always seems to set for us right before he steps on America’s shores.
No doubt there will be thousands of demonstrators waiting to greet the illegitimate president of Iran when he arrives at the United Nations on Thursday. Dozens of protests are being planned around the city, and indeed around the country. Posters and placards promoting Iranian democracy are being pasted all around the city. New York’s Helmsley Hotel has bowed to pressure and canceled Ahmadinejad’s scheduled speech in their banquet room; Gotham Hall has followed Helmsley’s example and also canceled a speech he was to give at their banquet hall. Pressure is now building on the Essex House, the replacement venue for Gotham, to also withdraw its invitation to Ahmadinejad.
This is all well and good, as far as I’m concerned. The less attention Ahmadinejad receives while he is in the U.S. the better. But if he is to receive the attention of the media and the citizens of this country, let’s make sure it’s for the damage he has caused to his own nation and to his own people, not for his silly and seemingly uninformed views on historical events.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.