The anti-Semitic regime in Tehran believes Jews guide and control American policy in the Middle East.

Nov. 27, 2023 at 5:14 pm ET  WALL STREET JOURNAL


Paramilitary troops under the IRGC’s command carry coffins symbolizing the end of the U.S. and Israel during a military rally in Tehran, Nov. 24. PHOTO: MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/ZUMA PRESS

The Gaza War has led to another debate about what motivates Iran’s ruling elite. Washington has proffered primarily one realist theme: The mullahs wanted to disrupt the diplomacy aimed at Israeli-Saudi normalization, so they helped Hamas unleash a war to awaken the Arab street. Confronted with popular anger, the Arab potentates, they thought, would retreat.

But this ignores a fundamental motivation of Iran’s theocracy: anti-Semitism. At least three generations of radical Iranian clerics have viewed Israel as illegitimate, usurping sacred Islamic lands in the name of a pernicious ideology advanced by history’s most devilish and stubborn people. Using the language of French Marxism, they call Israel a Western “colonial-settler state,” and they believe Jews guide American imperialism in the Middle East. In this struggle between good and evil, Muslims have a religious obligation to resist Israel and global Jewry.

The founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, set the standard for the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his book “Islamic Government,” he wrote, “From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to the present.” He depicted Jews as distorters of the Quran, financial hoarders, and agents of the West.

Khomeini’s anti-Semitic themes were picked up by his two most important disciples, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the “pragmatic” cleric par excellence, and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Rafsanjani published a book, “Israel and Beloved Jerusalem,” claiming that resistance to the Jewish state was the sacred duty of “every Muslim and anyone who believes in God.” Judaism for Rafsanjani was irretrievably “immersed in colonialism” and “Zionism is the essential partner of global arrogance [America].” Messrs. Rafsanjani and Khamenei green-lighted the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, which left 85 dead and 300 wounded.

Holocaust denial is a natural consequence of this mentality. Mr. Khamenei has been the regime’s most imaginative inventor of such odious tales. “There are documents showing close collaboration of the Zionists with Nazi Germany, and exaggerated numbers relating to the Jewish Holocaust were fabricated to solicit the sympathy of world public opinion, to lay the ground for the occupation of Palestine, and to justify the atrocities of the Zionists,” Mr. Khamenei said in a 2001 speech, Iran’s state television reported. He has even turned Holocaust denial into a free-speech issue, saying in a 2002 address: “All politicians, all reporters, all intellectuals, all officials, all experts in the West should bow their heads to commemorate the gas chambers. That is, they should all endorse a tale the authenticity of which is not clear.”

For four decades, the Islamic Republic has created a propaganda machine of hate. Iranian state agencies have routinely published an infamous booklet—“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—and other anti-Semitic tracts. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting airs anti-Semitic documentaries and TV series. Regime leaders, including Mr. Khamenei, have met routinely with Western Holocaust deniers at state-sanctioned conferences in Tehran. The International Holocaust Cartoon Contest, which Mr. Khamenei began in 2006, awards a prize to anti-Semitic art.

Iran’s position on the Middle East peace process has always been more extreme than that of most anti-Zionist Arab states. Iran has nurtured and armed rejectionist groups, such as Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. The clerical regime has repeatedly sent Hezbollah abroad to attack non-Israeli Jews.

Mr. Khamenei, who often speaks of Israel as a cancerous tumor on Islam’s body politic that must be excised, has insisted, referring to the Oct. 7 attack, that “the Zionist regime has suffered an irreparable defeat both in terms of military and intelligence. Everyone admitted the defeat but I emphasize irreparability.” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani added, “If the war expands we cannot say that Israel would lose, because nothing will remain of Israel to be described as loser or winner.”

Iran’s continuous assault on the Jewish state aims to demoralize its people, batter its armed forces’ reputation, divide its politics, and, most important, provoke an exodus of its best and brightest.

Western statesmen and journalists have often seen the Iranian theocracy’s anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, something turned on and off for Arab audiences by more sophisticated Persians. Many have consistently tried to isolate the regime’s anti-Semitism to a group of Iranian “hardliners”—even though these same men have always held power. Obviously it is easier for Barack Obama and Joe Biden to envision their nuclear diplomacy with Tehran as stabilizing and possibly transformative when Iran’s rulers aren’t seen as diehard, lethal anti-Semites. Imagine, however, if the Islamic Republic’s anti-Semitism were transmuted into a murderous creed targeting non-Jewish Americans? Would these presidents have been so keen to give billions in sanctions relief and seek a new modus vivendi with the U.S.?

Western policy toward Iran’s theocracy should see the regime as Mr. Khamenei does. Anti-Semitism isn’t adventitious, a passion that can be compartmentalized as pragmatism requires. Iranian expansionism—its support to radical militias throughout the Middle East—is impossible to understand properly without seeing the world as Iranian leaders do. They believe they are fighting a Jewish conspiracy that controls the West and intends to humble Muslims everywhere. Hamas’s war against Israel is part of that struggle.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.