In a new interview with Karmel Melamed in the Jewish Journal, Matthias Küntzel discusses the history of antisemitism in Iran, a topic he explores in detail in his new book Germany and Iran: From the Aryan Axis to the Nuclear Threshold. Purchase your copy of Germany and Iran in our online store.
Karmel Melamed: In your new book Germany and Iran, you speak about the extensive 20th century ties between the leaders of these two countries during the years. This is a part of history that has not yet been exposed to the mainstream public, why is it a good time to look at the relationships between these two countries now?
Matthias Küntzel: Because today, it is not enough to just observe that Iran is capable of building nuclear weapons. Instead, we have to ask ourselves why the United States’ twenty-year-long effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program failed. Whoever wants to answer this question will have to take the 100-years-old friendship between Germany and Iran into account. Germany was a driving force to limit the possible effects of sanctions during the last 12 years. “The extension of Iranian-German relations,” explained former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, “will sooner or later help the United States to recognize that they have to correct their policy vis-à-vis Iran.” This prediction has come true. Mr. Obama adopted Germany’s Iran policies in many respects: from dialogue with the Iranian regime and a dislike for any military option to the tacit acceptance of Iranian provocations during the dialogue and a refusal to take the written program of the Islamic Revolution seriously. My book furnishes a case study in analyzing the German approach to Iran, it provides a clear example of how not to reduce the Islamist’s threat.
You have researched, written and spoken extensively about the expansion of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world in recent years. As a German academic why is this subject of such interest to you?
Being a German social scientist I tried to figure out how Auschwitz could happen. That brought me to the topic of anti-Semitism. My interest in Jew-hatred within the Islamic world started with 9/11. The anti-Semitic motives behind that attack were confirmed by the witnesses of the first 9/11 legal case against members of Mohammed Atta’s core group here in Hamburg. The consequences of anti-Semitism during WWII are well-known. The consequences of today’s Islamic anti-Semitism, however, are underestimated. That is why I published my book on Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 that links these knots.
Can you please explain why the current Iranian regime for nearly 20 years has had such a massive public and overt obsession with the subject of Holocaust denial? Why do they keep bringing up this topic as a part of their foreign policy?
How can you wish to get rid of Israel and at the same time acknowledge the truth of the Holocaust? That is impossible. Anyone who accepts the reality of the Holocaust can’t at the same time believe that the Jews are the rulers of the world and that Israel of all countries is the root of all evil. These three items: elimination of Israel, demonization of Jews and Holocaust denial – are interwoven and belong together. They form what I call an ideological triangle. If any of the three sides of this ideological triangle is absent, the whole structure collapses. Holocaust denial is at the same time anti-Semitism at its peak. Whoever declares Auschwitz to be a “myth” implicitly portrays the Jews as the enemy of humankind, who for filthy lucre has been duping the rest of humanity for the past seventy years. Whoever talks of the “so-called” Holocaust suggests that over ninety percent of the world’s media and university professorships are controlled by Jews and thereby cut off from the “real” truth. In this way, precisely the same sort of genocidal hatred gets incited that helped prepare the way for the Shoah. Every denial of the Holocaust thus tacitly contains an appeal to repeat it. And that is what the Iranian leadership does.
From the former Iranian president Ahmadinejad, to Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and others in the Iranian regime, they unapologetically deny the Holocaust, embrace Holocaust deniers, and sponsor Holocaust denial conferences and Holocaust denial cartoons which have caused an uproar in the West. Do you think they do not care about the negative public relations image this creates? Or is there another motivation?
They care about their negative image. That is why the tone of Holocaust denial has changed since President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif entered office. Previously, denial of the Holocaust was the leitmotif of Iran’s foreign policy. Today it is still an undisputed part of Iran’s state ideology, but is no longer the centerpiece of its public diplomacy. However, even the internationally presentable Rouhani is still far from acknowledging the Holocaust. Asked, for example, whether the Holocaust was real, Iran’s new president responded: “I am not a historian. I’m a politician.” To pretend that the facts of the Holocaust are a matter of serious historical dispute and available only for historians is a classic rhetorical evasion. Later Rouhani maintained that “a group of Jewish people” had been killed by the Nazis during WWII. But again, Holocaust deniers commonly acknowledge that Jews were killed while insisting that the number of Jewish victims was relatively small and that a systematic effort to wipe them out did not place.
In your new book, you discuss the role Radio Berlin broadcasted into Iran played and the works of Nazi academics played in exporting their form of anti-Semitism to Iran during World War II. Can you please shed light into why this is important for us to understand today regarding the current Iranian regime’s hatred for Jews?
In defending the nuclear deal with Tehran, President Barak Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry gave the impression that they view the regime’s anti-Semitism as an incidental problem; to take it seriously would be a waste of time. Others believe that Iranian anti-Semitism is merely a response to Israel’s policies. I show in my book, that both assumptions are wrong. On the one hand, there was on the n the Shiite tradition always a strong anti-Jewish tendency. And there is, on other hand, still the after-effect of Nazi propaganda: Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazi’s anti-Semitism was exported via a daily Persian-language broadcast from Berlin to Iran. This broadcast was popular and its main radio speaker, Bahram Sharokh, a celebrity during those years. The Nazis based their anti-Semitic incitement in Persian language on Islamic roots. They radicalized some anti-Jewish verses of the Koran and combined them with the European phantasm of a Jewish world conspiracy. Ruhollah Khomeini was, according to Amir Taheri, a regular and ardent listener of “Radio Berlin.” His claim of 1971 that “the Jews want to create a Jewish world state” mirrored a classical trope of Nazi anti-Semitism.
For more than 30 years the Iranian propaganda ministry has repeatedly marched out Iran’s sole Jewish members of Parliament and individual Jewish leaders in front of Western media outlets to claim the Iranian regime “loves Jews and treats Jews equally”. As Jews who fled this regime in Iran, my community in America knows these claims are false and the Iranian regime has no love for Jews. I believe the Iranian regime has taken a direct page out of Nazi Josef Goebbels’ propaganda play book in trying to spin a false media image of Jews being treated nicely to cover their true evil. What is your assessment of this phenomenon?
It is true that the Iranian regime distinguishes between Zionism as a menace and Judaism as a legitimate religion and at holiday time, wishing all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashana. However, a “Jew” is here characterized as someone who is willing to support Tehran’s anti-Semitic program and Israel’s elimination. Only this kind of Jew – the fanatical followers of the Neturei Karta sect, the intimidated leaders and members of the Iranian Jewish community, or the useful idiots of the Jewish radical left – are acceptable to Tehran. All other Jews are fair game. The killing of five Jewish tourists in Bulgaria in 2012 and the attacks or planned attacks in Thailand, Georgia, and India perpetrated by Hezbollah terrorists and Iranian agents made headlines. Other Iranian attempts to kill Jews in Kenya, Nigeria, and Bangkok are less well known. The 1994 suicide bombing of the Jewish AMIA-Center in Buenos Aires caused the death of 85 persons and injured more than 150. This was the most deadly terror attack against Jews since World War II and it was the Iranian leadership including Khamenei and Rafsanjani that made this decision and instructed Hezbollah to commit the crime. The sole reason was the fact that Argentina did not want to continue its nuclear co-operation with Iran. Who, however, should be blamed and punished for Argentina’s independent decision? The AMIA example clearly shows that Iran’s anti-Jewish paranoid pattern contains a call to kill.
The Iranian regime and its leadership, spews hatred against Israel and “the Zionists” instead of using the word “Jews.” The regime’s leaders claim they have no “ill will” against the Jews but only hate for Israel. Is their hatred really against just Israel, or is this just a cover-up for a deeper-rooted anti-Semitism?
You’re right. Though the regime distributes thousands of anti-Semitic brochures such as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” it rarely mobilizes openly against “Jews” but agitates against the “Zionists”. It is important, however, to understand that this regime invests the word “Zionist” with exactly the same sense as that with which Hitler once invested the word “Jew”: namely that of being the incarnation of all evil. Destroying Israel is in their understanding the only way to stop that evil. Or in Ahmadinejad’s words: “The Zionist regime will be wiped out, and humanity will be liberated.” This sentiment—liberation through destruction—is the one for which the Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander coined the term “redemptive anti-Semitism”. It is not so far from that expressed in a Nazi directive of 1943: “This war will end with anti-Semitic world revolution and with the extermination of Jewry throughout the world, both of which are the precondition for an enduring peace.” The regime’s hatred of Jews resembles Hitler’s ideology in this aspect: Both have a utopian element. Just as Hitler’s “German peace” required the extermination of the Jews, so the Iranian leadership’s “Islamic peace” depends on the elimination of Israel. It is high time that the White House recognizes this utopian element and takes it seriously.
President Obama and his administration have claimed that the Iranian regime would not use nuclear weapons because it is against their religion. Why is this notion bogus and why must we be worried about the Iranian regime having such potential weapons?
I find it astonishing that the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is never referred to in the controversy over the Iranian nuclear program. Article 151 of this constitution cites sura 8, verse 60 of the Koran as a binding guideline for government action: “prepare to arm against them with all the men and cavalry at your disposal, so that you may strike terror into the enemies of Allah and the faithful and others beside them.” This reference back to the seventh century might strike us rather quaint. But things look different if we translate the Koran’s “cavalry” as “nuclear installations.” Khomeini gave special weight to this Koranic verse which he interpreted as a “call for maximum battle-readiness” and ensured that this verse found its way into the constitution of 1979. Since then Iran has been the only country whose constitution stipulates arming to the teeth against “Allah’s enemies.”
As a German academic, do you believe Germany, who was involved in carrying out one of the worse genocides of the last century, has a special interest today in preventing another potential massive nuclear genocide that could be carried out the Iranian regime?
Not only Germans but everybody who is still somewhat sane should have the interest to prevent the Iranian bomb with every means available. But you are right: It was only some decades ago that Nazi-Germany massively exported her anti-Semitism to Iran. Today Teheran is distributing the same old material in new anti-Zionist packaging throughout the world. Germans, in those days, had inscribed the anti-Semitic war of annihilation on their banner. Today the Iranian political leadership is doing the same vis-à-vis Israel. There is thus a special moral obligation for Germans and their government to reject a nuclear deal that paves the way for the Iranian bomb.