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Hamburg, 06.09.2017

Tehran's Efforts to Mobilize Antisemitim: The Global Impact

By Matthias Küntzel

More Jews live in Iran than in any other Muslim country in the world. Its leadership insists that it is not antisemitic but a friend of the Jews. “My colleagues and I are telling the world that Iran is opposed to antisemitism and genocide,” emphasized Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif in May 2014.[2]

Well-known critics of the Islamic regime tend to defend Iran in this respect. Thus, Baham Nirumand, an influential Iranian exile in Germany, has claimed that even Ahmadinejad’s call to eliminate Israel had “little to do” with antisemitism. “Up to now, Ahmadinejad has never criticized Jews as such, but above all the ‘Zionist occupation power,’ Israel.”[3] Why then is it nonetheless right to talk of Iranian antisemitism?

A second major question concerns Iran’s foreign policy. The negative image of the Ahmadinejad years (2005-2013) has been changing with the advent of Hassan Rouhani, Ahmadinejad’s successor to the Iranian presidency. Rouhani’s “vision aims to move Iran away from confrontation and toward dialogue, constructive interaction, and understanding”, claims his foreign minister.[4] Does this new image of Iran correspond to a real shift in its hitherto ideology-driven foreign policy?

These are important questions that deserve answers. This chapter, therefore, deals first with the specific form of Iranian antisemitism and second with the particular nature of Iran’s foreign policy. It then goes on to try to identify the links between the two – Iranian foreign policy and antisemitism.


In the 1960s, Ruhollah Khomeini was the first Iranian to speak about Jewish world domination and to discover the mobilizing power of Jew-hatred. His antisemitism was characterized by three features.

First, it was directed not only against Zionists, but also against Jews. “I know that you do not want Iran to be under the boot of the Jews,” he cried out to his supporters in April 1963.[5] In the same year, he called the Shah a Jew in disguise and accused him of taking orders from Israel. The response was positive, tremendously so. From then on, hatred of Jews has remained a central component of Iranian Islamist ideology.

“The Jews… wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world,” Khomeini wrote in 1970 in his main work Islamic Government. “Since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear that… they may one day achieve their goal.”[6] In September 1977, he declared: “The Jews have grasped the world with both hands and are devouring it with an insatiable appetite, they are devouring America and have now turned their attention to Iran and still they are not satisfied.”[7]

The second feature of his antisemitism was that Khomeini propagated the extinction of Israel for religious reasons –as a precondition for Muslim unity and Islamic revival and as a core duty in the struggle against the “moral corruption” embodied by a decadent Western culture. He drew a direct link between Zionism and secularization, describing Israel as the “germ of corruption … the destructive impulses of which threaten the entire Islamic world every day.”[8]

Thus, a political conflict was changed into a struggle between righteousness and falsehood, between pre-modern Islamic culture and cultural Westernization, in which no compromise was possible. Khomeini thus “islamized” the Arab-Israeli conflict and transformed the political-national conflict into a religious crusade.[9]

Third, Khomeini viewed Israel through the prism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In a speech in June 1963 he claimed that “Israel does not wish the Qur’an to exist in this country. Israel does not wish the ‘ulama to exist in this country. Israel does not wish a single learned man to exist in this country. … It wishes to seize your economy, to destroy your trade and agriculture, to appropriate your wealth.”[10]

Khomeini was not the first to combine crude antisemitism with anti-Zionism. In 1925, Hitler likewise attacked Zionism in Mein Kampf, warning that “a Jewish state in Palestine” would only serve as an “organization centre for their international world-swindling, … place of refuge for convicted scoundrels and a university for up-and-coming swindlers.”[11]

Fifty years later, Khomeini designated Israel as a “festering sore and a cancerous tumour on the body of the Islamic countries,” as a “man-eating giant and a pagan usurper,” as a “monster aspiring to world domination”, as a “germ of corruption in the heart of the Arab world” and an “enemy of all mankind”. These quotes are taken from a 1996 brochure that was disseminated by the Iranian state in an edition of 5,000 copies in the German language.[12]

It is difficult, according to Robert Wistrich, the leading historian of antisemitism research, “to imagine a more dehumanizing and repulsive terminology, yet the significance of its usage is widely ignored by the Western world.”[13]

After the victory of the revolution in 1979, three major changes took place with regard to Iranian antisemitism.


First, the rhetoric against Jews was toned down. Khomeini could ignore neither the signs of submission given by the Iranian Jewish community nor the precept of tolerance laid down in the Koran. In May 1979, he declared: “We distinguish between Jews and Zionists. Zionism has nothing to do with religion.”[14]

From now on, Jews (like the Armenian Christians and Zoroastrians) were treated as wards of a traditional Islamic state – Dhimmis – according to the “principles of Islamic justice.” The fundamental antisemitism, however, did not vanish. Iranian copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – Hitler’s textbook for the Holocaust – spread all over the world. Some examples: