When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to the UN his biggest fear will be that the visit will be marred by international condemnations over election fraud and the massive human rights abuses taking place in Iran under his watch. If he has his way, however, the international media may forget about the killings in Iran and focus on his provocative Holocaust comments instead.
Mindful of the horrific human rights abuses that have taken place in Iran in the aftermath of the stolen elections, and the continuing protests and resistance by ordinary Iranians, one would think that Ahmadinejad’s lack of internal legitimacy would be the natural topic of conversation. But Ahmadinejad is not a man of limited resources.
He knows how to deflect the attention of the media and he is a master of changing the subject. And he knows all too well how to push the buttons of Western audiences.
So it is not a surprise that after having been relatively quiet about the Holocaust for almost two years, Ahmadinejad suddenly decided to question it once again just a few days before landing in New York. At the Friday prayer sermons on September 18, Ahmadinejad called that the Holocaust “lie.”
His calculation seems to be as follows: Just as before, Western journalists will focus on the controversy around his Holocaust denial, while neglecting about the abuses and violations that are taking place in Iran on a continuous basis. The controversial Holocaust comments will overshadow everything else and will be the focus of not only Western media, but also the protests in New York as well as the statements and comments by European officials. At a minimum, it may help Ahmadinejad portray the situation as such to his audience in Iran.
Ahmadinejad can handle the scorn of world leaders and the Western media with his questioning of the Holocaust, partly because his own constituency of hardliners in Iran sees eye to eye with him on this issue. And partly because ordinary Iranians may be displeased and embarrassed by his comments, but in the midst of the repression they face in Iran, are preoccupied with more immediate concerns. Indeed, when European diplomats walked out on Ahmadinejad in Geneva during the racism summit earlier this year, many ordinary Iranians felt insulted by the act even if they rejected with Ahmadinejad’s comments.
What Ahmadinejad cannot handle, however, is extensive and relentless focus on Iran’s human rights record. Criticism against Ahmadinejad on these grounds by world leaders could do irreparable damage to Ahmadinejad’s standing inside Iran, particularly as Iranian of all walks of life continue to defy his rule. It would show that the world is not indifferent to the systematic and lethal abuses taking place in Iranian prisons. It would show that the world cares not only about Ahmadinejad’s provocative rhetoric, but actually also about the well being of the Iranian people.
Ahmadinejad cannot handle a walkout at the UN over his election robbery and human rights abuses.
So if delegates at the UN General Assembly walk out on Ahmadinejad on Wednesday, the decisive issue will be on what grounds they did so. Will it be over his Holocaust denial or over his stealing of an election and torture of his own people?
Ahmadinejad’s preference is clear. He has used the tragedy of the Holocaust for political gain before. The question is if the world will walk into his trap again.
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007) and President of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian American grassroots organization in the US. This commentary was first published in .