Antisemitism has never been an easy subject for America’s foreign-policy establishment. Read through State Department telegrams and Central Intelligence Agency operational and intelligence cables on the Middle East and you will seldom find it discussed, even though Jew-hatred—not just anti-Zionism—has been a significant aspect, if not a core component, of modern Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and what usually passes for critical thought among sophisticated Arab elites.
Western scholars, too, generally avoid the subject. The Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio is an omnipresent and divisive issue in the academy, and academics who might be inclined to explore antisemitism among Muslims could risk their reputation among colleagues who view such study as tendentious, even bigoted. And those with the languages to appreciate this distemper are often inclined to downplay its importance precisely because of its commonness. The threshold for what constitutes shocking Jew-hatred, as opposed to routine hostility, has gotten pretty high in the Middle East in part because Western leftist sympathy for Israel has been declining. Middle Eastern intellectuals are still influenced by the preferences and vicissitudes of the European left. However, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s exuberant, Holocaust-denying antisemitism crossed the line. He played a not insignificant part in changing the atmospherics about Iran within Europe by amplifying elite European fear that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might strike Tehran’s atomic program. The European oil embargo, designed to punish the clerical regime for its nuclear aspirations—the single most forceful diplomatic action ever by the European Union—rose up in the summer of 2012 in Ahmadinejad’s antisemitic wake.
However, his Jew-hatred was no uglier or less menacing than that of the supreme leader, who has far greater power and influence than an Iranian president. Yet Ali Khamenei’s obsession has received far less attention, especially after President Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy kicked into high gear with the presidential election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. With the notable exceptions of the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who both support the president’s nuclear accord, prominent left-leaning journalists have downplayed Khamenei’s rampaging antisemitism, usually by balancing it with more optimistic assessments of Persian culture, Rouhani, and the American-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Such optimists inevitably cite the irenic Jewish holiday tweets of Rouhani, who once remarked to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Holocaust denial was a subject best left to historians to debate.)
The president and senior administration officials, except when they are answering Goldberg’s questions, have preferred to talk about other things, like the utility of “snapback” sanctions, Israel’s nuclear deterrent, or the possibility of future Iranian moderation. Seriously discussing the ruling elite’s antisemitism could lend too much credence to the deal’s critics. However fierce Khamenei’s Jew-hatred may be, it is more abstract for many than the fear of American preemption against Iran’s nuclear sites. Commentary that could reinforce an argument for military action isn’t commentary worth making.
Yet it is a good idea to revisit the antisemitic mainspring of Khamenei’s thought. Unless he soon drops dead from cancer, he will determine Iran’s atomic future. He has assiduously backed the growing power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees the country’s nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs, serves as the regime’s expeditionary force in Syria and Iraq, and has primary responsibility for liaison work with foreign Islamic militants. This organization’s incessant anti-semitic rhetoric mirrors the supreme leader’s conspiratorial rants. Given that Khamenei controls the Assembly of Experts, the body designated to choose his successor, there’s no reason to believe the Islamic Republic will become less antisemitic in the coming decade.