Iran's New President Has a Track Record of Antisemitism | Opinion

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th century forgery by Russian intelligence services, was designed to scapegoat Jews for the empire's hardships. It has since fueled more than a century of hate. The Protocols has catalyzed antisemitic harassment, assaults and pogroms, and helped lay the groundwork for the Holocaust. For over a century, the Anti-Defamation League and other experts have warned that The Protocols are nothing but venomous lies and antisemitic conspiracy theories.

And Iran's President-Elect, Ebrahim Raisi, played a hands-on role in promoting The Protocols as part of a sustained campaign to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish people.

This information, which the ADL recently uncovered, is deeply relevant as the world considers whether to return to the Iran deal and what would constitute a "longer and stronger" accord. Raisi's track record shows us that an obsessive hatred of the Jewish state is not an abstraction but a major feature of his career.

To be clear, Raisi is far from a humanitarian. He has gotten much attention for reported crimes against humanity. It is well-documented that he was one of four judges who, in the late 1980s, oversaw the execution of thousands of members of Iranian opposition groups, including women and children. One analyst recently wrote that his subdued personality and criminal record evokes Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil.

Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi
Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference at Shahid Beheshti conference hall on June 21, 2021 in Tehran, Iran. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

In 2016, Raisi was appointed by Iran's supreme leader to direct the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation, in which capacity he oversaw the production of a 50-episode documentary film promoting The Protocols. The documentary aired on Iranian TV and was distributed to pilgrims at a major religious shrine under his control, the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, Iran, the resting place of the eighth Shi'ite Imam. The Shrine is a major religious site visited by 20 million pilgrims a year pre-pandemic, according to Iranian records filed with UNESCO.

While the Foundation had previously published and promoted hardcopy editions of The Protocols and continued to do so during his tenure, under Raisi, it also exploited new media to amplify the spread of the antisemitic Protocols. About a year after Raisi assumed control, the Foundation announced plans for the documentary about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In 2018, the film, titled "the Devil's Plan," was released and the Foundation held a press conference in one of the Shrine's historic courtyards. The film's director told journalists that Jews, "the leaders of this front of untruth," have in the Protocols "codified from past centuries the most complete plan for their demonic world domination" and that the film explains the need for their "elimination." He decried "the hands of the party of Satan, namely, global Zionism" and said the film would be broadcast on both the Foundation's television network and on public TV stations.

The Protocols
A poster from the documentary, including the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation's logo; Tasnim News Agency, June 23, 2017

The Foundation then published a news bulletin announcing that its 50-part documentary would be available on CD for pilgrims visiting the Imam Reza Shrine and distributed to audiences at the Foundation's cultural programs.

Raisi left the Foundation in 2019 when he was picked to head Iran's judiciary, but the Foundation continued the antisemitic project it pioneered during his leadership. For example, several weeks after Raisi left, the Foundation announced a contest on which contestants would be quizzed as to the contents of the Protocols film, to better teach the "ways to confront the tricks of Satan." The public was invited to participate in the contest online and pilgrims encouraged to submit answers using special drop boxes at the Imam Reza Shrine.

As head of the Foundation, reportedly the largest holding company in Eastern Iran, Raisi bore responsibility for its exploitation of a major heritage site to spread vicious antisemitism and for letting its financial resources be used to propagate such incitement against the Jewish people.

But even since he's left the Foundation, Raisi has continued to incite hateful conspiracy theories and even violence in his public remarks. Last year, he alleged America and "global Zionism" are plotting to subjugate all Muslims, pulling the strings of a global media empire, hatching devious plans in think tanks and conspiring to insult the Prophet Muhammad. And he cheered on other terrorists, proclaiming "all the Zionists know Hezbollah will drop such rockets and bombs so that no person in Israel will be safe."

Raisi's history of hate mongering throws into stark relief the twin perils of U.S. engagement with Iran over its nuclear activities. On the one hand, real progress will be tough to achieve with such a regime, especially now that Raisi's election erases the fiction that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, might be offset by a less provocative Iranian president. But on the other hand, these revelations also highlight the urgency of such negotiations, given how terrifying the prospect would be of nuclear weapons in the hands of such cruel and hateful men.

Clearly, such a dilemma offers no easy answers. Yet our discovery that Raisi was responsible for systematically propagating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most dangerous tracts in history, provides an unsettling reminder of just how engaged Iran's government and leaders have been in inciting antisemitism. The revelation appears to substantiate the profound anxiety among Israelis and others in the region about an ascendant and militarized Iran.

The Biden Administration's recent disruption of regime-backed websites that spread Iranian disinformation and bigotry was a positive step, even if those sites already are resuming activity. What's needed now is a forthright recognition by this Administration that Iran's regime remains the number one state sponsor of antisemitism, which the Trump team actually got right. And based on that, the Administration should issue a strategy for constraining and counteracting Iran's initiatives inciting hatred and violence against Jewish communities around the world.

The devastation wrought by dictators from Hitler to Stalin to Khomeini brandishing The Protocols should compel all of us to take seriously the threat represented by an Iranian regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism across the region. Raisi comes to this job as a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, and no responsible country should host him for a state visit or any official talks. Now the U.S. and all world powers must work together to assure that he can commit no additional crimes against humanity.

Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

The views in this article are the writer's own.