Last month, on September 22, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stood at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly. Many waited to hear the words of the so-called reformer upon whom so much hope rests.
Yet rather than reveal a more moderate Iran prepared to play a responsible role on the world stage, Rouhani launched a meandering speech, making a series of accusations including blaming “Zionist pressure groups” for “having” Congress recently pass legislation to the detriment of Iran.
Before the leaders of the world, before the global media, this head of state charged Jews with manipulating and controlling the organs of the US government in a brazen display of conspiratorial anti-Semitism.
Was I shocked? Not at all. Numerous Iranian leaders, notably former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stood before the UN many times spouting hate-filled anti-Semitic accusations and conspiracy theories. Such rubbish is core to the ideology of the Islamic Republic and a central feature in its propaganda
But I did expect a reaction – from those assembled in that grand hall, from the media that covered this meeting of nations. And yet no dignitary in the General Assembly, no member of the P5+1, who continue to engage with Iran over the nuclear agreement, even mentioned this bigotry, much less condemned it. When I consider the recent farcical UNESCO ruling wherein many world powers voted against reality, perhaps I was naïve to hold out such hope.
Major news organizations in the US and Europe reported on Rouhani’s complaints in his UN speech and in later press conferences regarding US restrictions on trade and access to assets, claiming this was in violation of the nuclear agreement.
But the press never mentioned the party Rouhani directly blamed for being behind the American non-compliance – “Zionist pressure groups,” aka Jews. The only public note of this episode came in the Israeli and Jewish media.
Why was this? Does the international community agree with this age-old anti-Semitic trope of Jewish control of the government? Certainly not, but I do think that President Rouhani’s anti-Jewish accusation is inconsistent with the narrative being presented by governments and pundits, one often featured in the media, of Rouhani and the regime taking a more moderate approach.
His hostility does not snap neatly into the narrative of a kinder, gentler Iran that much of the media embraced after the JCPOA was instituted last year. The P5+1 and others in the international community would prefer to focus on the benefits of the nuclear agreement, the burgeoning trade or even Iran’s role in the fight against ISIS. Iran’s state-propagated anti-Semitism, state-sponsored terrorism and serial human rights abuses occasionally are noted, but typically in a pro forma, “yes-we-are-aware” manner.
The reality is that, particularly since the JCPOA, Iranian rhetorical extremism – including anti-Semitism and state-sanctioned Holocaust denial – and violent aggressions in the region are central to any conversation about the country and its ability to integrate back into the community of nations. These elements demonstrate what the Islamic Republic is, what its beliefs and values are, and the policies it enacts to further their goals.
As Iran seeks to normalize relations with the West and to enter its multilateral bodies like the World Trade Organization, the international community must demand that it stop sponsoring anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. As some advocate to ease business restrictions on the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, we should push even harder for Tehran to take concrete action to tamp down its illiberalism and behave like a reasonable actor on the world stage.
Going forward, one way European leaders – particularly in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark and Poland – can send this message is by insisting that, before every meeting with an Iranian official in Europe, the visiting dignitary takes time to visit a Holocaust memorial, museum or historic site. This is something that many other foreign leaders routinely do in visits to those countries where the Nazis’ Final Solution was implemented. It is time for Iranian leaders to follow suit.
Such a measure would be more than a gesture. It would be an important symbol to show the world that Iran actually is behaving like a normal country, that it is taking meaningful steps to officially recognize the horrors of the Holocaust, an undeniable and defining moment of the 20th century.
As diplomatic engagement with Iran becomes increasingly routine, the international community must not look the other way when it comes to the Iranian regime’s aggressions and hatreds.
A powerful step would be to condition an embrace of Iranian leaders in the halls of power by requiring that they face history and pay respects to the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah. This could answer the question as to whether Iran is prepared to behave like a responsible actor in the world community.
This might give Rouhani and the rest of the world something actually meaningful to talk about at the UN in 2017.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.