The forthcoming contest has been downplayed by the current Iranian presidential administration, which is regarded by some in the West as being moderate in comparison with the previous administration. Earlier this week, the Christian Science Monitor ran an article detailing how Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had deflected criticism of the contest by comparing its rhetoric to that of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, and arguing that it is not the role of a national government to counter harmful public statements coming from non-governmental groups within the government.
But as the Monitor and a number of other Western news outlets have emphasized, Zarif’s defense is undercut by two facts in particular. The first is that the Holocaust denial cartoon contest is recognizably linked to government entities that are either partners to or parent organizations of the non-governmental groups that are organizing and sponsoring it. The second is that the Islamic Republic clearly does regard it as the role of government to counter what it views as negative public statements, social trends, or “propaganda.”
This latter fact was reiterated throughout the Western media this week after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ cybercrimes division took to Iran’s official news networks to boast of arrests and prosecutions associated with a sting operation on an online modeling network, which had posted images of women without their legally mandated headscarves. In parallel with these broadcasts, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the internet in Iran as a “battleground” in which regime authorities and their hardline civilian supporters can root out “deviant behaviors.”
The internet is given to particularly heavy censorship and filtering in Iran, which also routinely sits near the top of lists of countries with the least press freedom and the greatest number of arrests of journalists. Within this general context of restrictions on free speech, it is clear that the essential reason why Holocaust denial hasn’t been targeted by the current government is because, far from being considered “deviant,” it still has widespread support from Iranian officials.
Consequently, it is no surprise that foreign governments and political organizations have shown little to no sign of being swayed by Zarif’s arguments. Condemnations of Iran’s hosting of the Holocaust cartoon contest continue to steadily emerge, with one of the latest coming, unsurprisingly, from Germany. A spokesperson for the German foreign ministry was quoted by news outlets as saying “the murder of six million men, women, and children during the Holocaust, for which we Germans bear guilt and responsibility, should not be abandoned to ridicule.”
But this was not the first time that the German foreign ministry had spoken out against the forthcoming contest. During a February trip to Tehran to discuss prospective trade agreements, the foreign minister himself, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had insisted that the contest should not go forward. It is not clear that Steinmeier or any other Western official has outlined actual consequences that the Iranian regime would face for failing to prevent the contest, but many organizations have seized the opportunity to express their outrage.
UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, had described the contest as deliberately making “a mockery of the genocide of the Jewish people, a tragic page of humanity’s history.” Furthermore, a spokesperson for the US State Department said, “Such offensive speech should be condemned by the authorities and civil society leaders rather than encouraged. We denounce any Holocaust denial and trivialization as inflammatory and abhorrent. It is insulting to the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust.”
On Tuesday, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing highlighted the fact that these two issues are closely connected, according to The Tower. In it, Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, warned of Iran’s potential to go on dominating Syria after the conclusion of the Syrian Civil War, and said that it would “likely spell an escalation in Iranian weapons transfers.