Rouhani to Make First Visit by an Iranian President to Europe in a Decade

Will be criticized for holding Holocaust cartoon contest

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani / AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani / AP


JERUSALEM—When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits a major United Nations institution in Rome Wednesday, on the first visit by an Iranian president to Europe in more than a decade, he will be upbraided for Iran’s making a “mockery” of the Holocaust by holding a satirical Holocaust cartoon contest, the Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz reported Tuesday.

The visit to Europe is part of Rouhani’s attempt to promote reconciliation with the West in the wake of the recent nuclear agreement and to invite Western investment in his country.

However, his address to the Rome-based staff of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Wednesday coincides with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to Ha’aretz, UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, has said she will raise with Rouhani during his visit the recent announcement of a Holocaust cartoon contest scheduled to be held in the Iranian city of Mashaad in June.

In a letter to Israel’s delegate to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who had notified her of the announcement of the contest in the Iranian press, Ms. Bokova said she was “deeply outraged” at the report. The contest, she wrote, “makes a mockery of the darkest chapter in the history of humanity.” She said she had sent a letter of protest to the Iranian delegate to UNESCO. The UN organization itself conducts activities around the world to promote Holocaust education.

Rouhani and his government have publicly repudiated the Holocaust denial promoted by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who has referred to “the Holocaust myth.” During his visit to the U.N. Security Council last year, Rohani referred to the Holocaust as a “reprehensible and condemnable crime,” but he did not say whether he accepted that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was six million. “I am not a history scholar,” he said. Ahmadinejad and others have said that even if there was killing of Jews the 6 million figure is a gross exaggeration.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who went to university in the United States and is more aware how Holocaust denial has harmed Iran’s image, rejected the Holocaust denial school unreservedly. The Iranian nation has never denied the Holocaust, he wrote last year. In a clear reference to Ahmadinejad, he said “The man who was perceived as denying it is now gone.”

However, on Dec. 17, the Islamic Republic News Agency announced that the International Cartoon Biennial, which has been held for the past decade, will be held again this year under the auspices of the Teheran municipality and invited contributions of satirical work. First prize is $50,000, it said. In what may be a show of deference to the current Iranian leadership, the organizers of the contest said it was not intended to deny the Holocaust or support it, “but to enable questions to be asked about it.”

In Ms. Bokova’s letter to the diplomat, she said that the cartoon contest would “further serve to incite hatred, racism, and discrimination.”

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