On May 14, Iran will host the second Holocaust Cartoons contest, a competition that was widely condemned around the world when it was first launched a decade ago.

In an interview with the US magazine The New Yorker published on April 25, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denied that the Iranian government had anything to do with the competition and the accompanying exhibition. “It’s not Iran,” he told the journalist Robin Wright. “It’s an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government. Nor is it endorsed by the Iranian government.”

But Zarif was not telling the truth, or at least not the whole truth. The fact is that this competition has the official backing of the Iranian government, and the government has helped with its preparation.

The Holocaust Cartoons competition and festival was first launched in 2006, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the president of Iran. After the Danish cartoon scandal, when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, the Islamic Republic retaliated by organizing a two-day International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust. Manouchehr Mottaki, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, opened the conference proceedings. Holocaust deniers from around the world attended, including David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

The newspaper Hamshahri, published by the office of Tehran’s mayor, sponsored the event, and Ahmadinejad had strong links to the office since prior to becoming president he had served as mayor. His press advisor, Mohammad Ali Ramin, was among the officials who publicly supported the exhibition. 

The cartoon mafia

The exhibition was organized and refereed by the cartoonist Massoud Shojaei Tabatabaei. Following the exhibition, he was banned from entering 25 countries. At the time, he was the director of Iranian House of Cartoons, a position he was supposed to hold “for life” until a number of cartoonists objected to his unlimited tenure and he resigned in a huff. He threatened to establish the “House of Revolutionary Cartoons” to punish dissenting cartoonists. However, he did not act on his threat, and after a period, returned to the House of Cartoons. For the past few years Tabatabaei has been a member of Tehran Mayoralty’s Culture and Arts Organization which, since 1996 has been run by a board appointed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the Islamic Propaganda Organization.

But Shojaei Tabatabaei’s position at the helm of the House of Cartoons was not merely a job. As Kianoush Ramezani, an Iranian cartoonist who now lives in Paris says, “I do not want to say that we were afraid of him, but in spite of his smiling face his role was to intimidate us.”

Ramezani also points out that Tabatabaei has close working relations with his relative Hossein Niroomand who, like him, is a member of the Iranian arts establishment, dubbed a “mafia” by many Iranian artists. “They both started early after the revolution with Kayhan — the Kayhan organization, the newspaper Kayhan, Kayhan Cartoons, etc.,” says Ramezani. Kayhan operates under the direct supervision of the supreme leader’s office and its managing editor is appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei. “They replace each other as chief editor and the boss of Kayhan Cartoons,” says Ramezani. “Whoever works in the field of cartoons needs their approval for whatever he does, and as a result sometimes they have to yield to them."

Tehran Mayoralty is accountable to Iran’s Ministry of Interior, but the Islamic Propaganda Organization is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who appoints its president. The government allocates an annual budget to the organization, which is also approved by the parliament.

In turn, the Islamic Propaganda Organization runs Sarcheshmeh Cultural Institute, one of the organizers of the second Holocaust Cartoons competition. Another backer of the competition is Owj Media and Arts Organization, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. After the nuclear agreement was signed last July, Owj launched a campaign called American Honesty, and covered billboards around Tehran with anti-American posters. With the support of this organization, the award money for the winner of the Holocaust Cartoons competition has been increased from $25,000 to $50,000.

Owj claims it is an NGO but its affiliation with the Revolutionary Guards is an open secret. And the senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards are directly appointed by the supreme leader, who started voicing his own doubts about Holocaust in the 1990s, and finally stopped mincing his words  in around 2000, when he said, “in many Western countries, nobody dares to question the myth of the Holocaust.”

No Permit Required? Really?

This chain of command leaves no doubt that the government of the Islamic Republic directly supports the Holocaust Cartoons competition. And the government has played other roles as well.

Zarif told the New Yorker that the exhibition did not need a permit but the fact is that any exhibition or conference in Iran needs a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. A condition for such a permit is that the exhibition or conference must not insult beliefs through “sight, sound, paintings or caricatures.” When asked about Zarif’s statements, cartoonist and organizer Shojaei Tabatabaei told Nasim news agency,“We are coordinating [the competition] with Ministry of Culture and officials…have been kept informed about the event.”

In the New Yorker interview, Zarif also said that Iran would be vigilant about not issuing visas to people who promoted hatred or racism. “People who have preached racial hatred and violence will not be invited,” he said. Iranian diplomatic missions are normally responsible for issuing visas, but when it comes to the cartoon exhibition, organizers coordinate with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance concerning who gets visas.

The Islamic Republic’s persistent Holocaust denial has been roundly condemned by several Western countries and prominent international figures, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. After the launch of the first competition, the mayor of Paris said it mocked millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust. In Germany, both the government and various political parties have repeatedly condemned the Islamic Republic for its Anti-Semitic stance.

It is true that Hassan Rouhani’s government is not directly and officially responsible for the exhibition, but if it seriously opposed it, the administration could refuse to issue a permit and deny visas to participants. Zarif once tweeted that “the man who denied Holocaust is gone.” But is Rouhani’s government ready to tangle with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards over this issue?

When the New Yorker asked Zarif, “Why does Iran allow a cartoon festival on the Holocaust?”, the foreign minister answered with a question of his own. “Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan? Is the government of the United States responsible for the fact that there are racially hateful organizations in the United States?”

But of course, Zarif ignored the main point, shying away from the key difference between the two racist and discriminatory groups: the US government does not fund the activities of the KKK.

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