Not In Our Name: On Ahmadinejad’s Dangerous Statements


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected as Iran’s President in June 2005 under questionable circumstances, has made a number of controversial statements on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent months. For example, at a speech in the city of Zahedan, he referred to the Nazi Holocaust as a “myth”. His government has also been planning a conference to “examine” (read “deny”) Hitler’s killing of six million Jews in Europe. As Iranian students at Harvard, we want to use this forum to unequivocally denounce his dangerous and anti-Semitic remarks.

We feel compelled to write for two reasons. First, having spent a significant part of our lives in Iran we feel it is a duty to combat Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitism and to struggle for peace and democracy in our homeland. Secondly, as students who support the Palestinian demand for an end to the brutal and illegal Israeli occupation, we wish to denounce Ahmadinejad’s statements lest our cause be confused with his.

It is worth stressing that Mr. Ahmadinejad does not speak for the Iranian people when he denies the Nazi Holocaust or makes equally-deplorable anti-Semitic remarks. Despite increased limits on free expression and the shrinking space for public discourse in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s speech was almost immediately condemned by Iranians inside and outside the country. For example, the Islamic Participation Front, a reformist party inside Iran, quickly denounced the President’s statements. Likewise, Ahmadinejad’s comments were roundly criticized by numerous commentators in the Iranian diaspora press and in the Iranian blogosphere.

As despicable as Ahmadinejad’s remarks regarding the Nazi Holocaust are, they should come as little surprise to serious observers of Iran. It has long been the modus operandi of Iranian leaders to adopt a belligerent stance toward the international community so as to deflect attention away from their own poor performance in the human rights and economic arenas. To appear nationalistic and to rally their ever-dwindling number of supporters, Iranian officials often deliver policy speeches filled with references to undefined international conspiracies and covert enemies plotting against Islam. In addition, to avoid accountability for its domestic failures, Iran’s government often exploits the Iranian public’s legitimate sympathies toward Palestinians. But whereas many Iranians understandably criticize Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the dreadful violation of Palestinians’ human rights, the Iranian government chooses to couch its arguments in anti-Semitic language that downplays the historic suffering of the Jewish people.

Those alarmed by Ahmadinejad’s remarks – many of them in the Harvard community – should first recognize that a serious divide exists among Iranians. There is currently a monumental struggle between the vast majority of Iranians who wish for peace and justice in the international arena, and a small minority of reactionaries, like Ahmadinejad and his ilk, who make anti-Semitic claims and strike bellicose poses. Secondly, Iran-observers ought to recognize that the country has a nascent (and increasingly-threatened) civil society comprised of students, journalists, and human-rights activists. Members of this civil society regularly challenge the Iranian government in brave and creative ways, often at great personal risk. Finally, Americans concerned about Ahmadinejad’s government should know that they can help the forces of peace and democracy in Iran by demanding that their own government adopt different policies. To help Iran’s civil society prevail over the likes of Ahmadinejad, Americans should, for example, oppose the needlessly-aggressive acts and language the U.S. government directs at Iran. Such U.S. actions often have the unintended consequence of lending credence to the paranoid rants of Iran’s leaders, thus allowing them to rally support. Furthermore, Americans interested in the success of Iran’s democracy movement should oppose the sanctions currently imposed on Iran by the United States. The sanctions are of a blunt and untargeted variety, harming ordinary Iranians far more than they hurt Iran’s leadership.

We, like a majority of our compatriots, wish for an international order based upon a mutual respect between states and a deep respect for international law. We believe, for example, that Israel should rightfully be called to account when it shamelessly violates the rights of Palestinians through the occupation of Palestinian land, the killing of civilians, the demolishing of houses, or the illegal building of a wall on Palestinian territory. But by the same token, we believe that Iran’s leaders ought not to resort to the use of offensive, dangerous, and discredited anti-Semitism to express support for the Palestinian cause.

On December 16th, 2005, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, one of Iran’s top clerics, stated his support for Ahmadinejad and claimed that the President’s holocaust-denial is “what all Iranians say.” But our denunciation here should make clear that neither Ahmadinejad, nor Meshkini, nor any other fanatic who subscribes to their hateful views, speaks in our name.

Kaveh Shahrooz is a 3L at Harvard Law School. Mohammad Hafezi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Harvard Physics Department.

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