The world is looking on as Iran gears up for its latest Holocaust cartoon contest. As conscious as ever of his public image in the West as a “moderate,” and of the need to end Iran’s international isolation, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has distanced himself from the competition, telling The New Yorker’s Robin Wright last month that the biennial – the third such international competition to take place in Iran, a notorious paragon of Holocaust denial – will be held by “an NGO” that is not “controlled” or “endorsed” by the Iranian government.
Not wholly convinced, Wright pressed Zarif further by pointing out that the NGO “clearly has a permit to hold the function.” Zarif demurred, insisting that no such permit is necessary, and that Tehran’s only way of controlling who attends the competition is restricting visas to those who have not “preached racial hatred and violence” (murky wording, which clearly does not seem to apply to anti-Semites within or without Iran). Zarif then went on to compare the organizers of the festival to the KKK, arguing that Iran has no more control over such groups than a Western democracy does.
However, most media outlets didn’t buy it. Iranwire titled their article “The Holocaust Cartoons and Zarif’s lies”. The Algemeiner called the bluff by quoting Massoud Shojaei Tabatabaei, secretary of the Holocaust International Cartoon Contest, who categorically refuted Zarif’s words, admitting in an April 27 interview with the Iranian website Nasimonline that his organization “cooperates with the Ministry of Culture.”
Additional press outlets, like the washingtonpost & bignewsnetwork, questioned Zarif’s honesty by quoting sources to the effect that the competition does have extended government links, noting also that previous contests, which took place in 2006 and 2015 (after Rouhani’s election), were endorsed by the Iranian government, making the government’s Holocaust denial difficult to deny.
In their press release, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum demanded an unequivocal denouncement by the Iranian government, disavowing or condemning the cartoon contest. This challenge still remains to be met by the Iranian government.
The media debate over the competition and Zarif’s high-profile attempt to distance himself from the competition led the Washington Post to publish an editorial reviewing the so called “gap” between the hardliners and the moderates. The editorial targets both “Iran’s ‘moderates,’” and the news outlets which have made them “favorites,” even though the Iranian regime itself disaffirms this so called “distinction”. Zarif himself disclaims this distinction. Added to Ben Rhodes’ revelation about “manufactured narratives” (see i.e. forward) in this exact context of “moderation in Iran”, perhaps it is time to double-check western pre-conceptions.
The significance of the cartoon festival is way beyond a “poisonous orgy of anti-Semitism.” It, for two reasons, undermines the entire notion on which the “diplomatic engagement” is established: it highlights Iran’s dishonesty, and challenges the entire notion of a gap between moderates and hardliners. The press has caught on. Have the decision makers?