A Nation of Holocaust Deniers?

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The conversation quickly skipped from the Holocaust to how Israel is Iran's natural ally in the region, and what a shame it is that the two countries can't band together and lord it over the Arabs. That's when I realized there are two types of Holocaust skeptics in Iran. There's the Ahmadinejad type, and then there's the ordinary Iranian, who lives in denial about everything, not just one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. Let me explain.

Iranians think all governments lie. Before the Islamic Revolution they considered the Shah a liar, just as they now consider the mullahs liars. That's why most people believe Voice of America news tells the truth, while state television dissimulates. This mistrust stems from a cultural predilection toward conspiracy theories, and the widely held conviction that reality is that which you cannot see. Relatives and family friends with advanced degrees from prestigious Western universities still believe that the British run Iran, that Freemasons run the West, that Jimmy Carter engineered the Islamic Revolution, and that the CIA masterminded Sept. 11. I can't tell you how many times I've nodded grimly through such conversations, privately thinking, Et tu? We are a doomed people. Given this culture of conspiracy, you can see how the Holocaust gets lumped along with Sept. 11 and their own revolution as just another historical sham that Iranians, shrewd connoisseurs of the cover-up, are able to see past.

The distinction between the two types matters, I suppose, because most Iranians don't share Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel worldview. They have no blood feud with Israel, and would cheerfully accept better relations if it meant their daily lives would improve. It's worth remembering that under the Shah, Iran had relations with Israel and no one much minded. Besides, Iranians are no dummies. Millions of middle-class Iranians travel to Turkey on vacation and see the shiny cars, international banks and consumer bounty that come along with a policy of accommodation. They want that for themselves. Sadly, their government wants to share its bounty with Hizballah.

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