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The Government of Iran and the 2016 Holocaust Cartoon Exhibition

In 2015, two Iranian cultural organizations announced a second Holocaust cartoon contest, expecting to receive entries from cartoonists in dozens of countries. Over 150 cartoons from this contest will be exhibited in Tehran beginning May 14, 2016. In an April 2016 interview published in the New Yorker, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tried to distance the government from the contest, asserting that it did not receive government support or endorsement, and that no official permission was necessary to hold it. In an April 29, 2016 statement, the Museum questioned these assertions, and called on Zarif and President Rouhani to denounce the contest.

The following provides more detailed information on the contest and its connection to the Iranian government, based on a review of Iranian media sources.

Exhibition of Holocaust Cartoons Opened May 14

Iran’s second Holocaust cartoon competition was sponsored by the Owj Media & Cultural Institute and the Sarsheshmeh Cultural Center, officially supported cultural organizations in Iran.

The solicitation of cartoons was announced in 2015, and an exhibition of cartoons submitted from contributors around the world opened on May 14, 2016. The exhibition was held in the art section of the Islamic Propaganda Organization and displayed over 150 cartoons. The exhibition was part of Iran’s Cartoon Biennale. The contest organizer has said that this date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the State of Israel.

After closing the exhibition on May 30, 2016, the art sections of the Islamic Propaganda Organization sponsored showings of the exhibition in several other provincial capitals. The Islamic Propaganda Organization is completely funded by the government and its director is appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In addition to these exhibitions, the organizers of the contest have published and distributed country-wide 10-page brochures showcasing selected cartoons, asking people to write 25-word reactions to them. The winners of the essay contests will win trips to Mashhad, where Imam Reza, the eighth Shii imam is buried.

Contest Organizers are Supported and Funded by the Government

The organizations involved in the contest were supported by official Iranian sources.

  • Owj Media and Cultural Institute: When asked about the relationship between the Owj Institute and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC), Ramezan Sharif, the IRCG public affairs spokesman, said that Owj receives the “close cooperation and support” of the IRCG, including funding.

  • Sarsheshmeh Cultural Center: The Center’s website states that it receives its budget from the Islamic Propaganda Organization which is funded by the government and whose yearly budget is approved by the Iranian Parliament.

The cartoons were presented at the Islamic Propaganda Organization and as part of Iran's Cartoon Biennale, which is funded and organized by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

These arrangements are consistent with the Iranian government’s role in the previous Holocaust cartoon contest held in 2006. The 2006 contest was sponsored by the Iranian House of Cartoon, which is funded by the Municipality of Tehran, and the Hamshahri newspaper, which is an official outlet of the Tehran municipality. (In Iran, municipalities are connected to the national government, and not independently elected.) The cartoons were presented in the Saba Cultural and Art Center, which is a section of the Academy of Iranian Art, a governmental institution. Then-President Ahmadinejad spoke at the conclusion of the contest.

Such a Contest Could Not Take Place Without Government Support

Since Foreign Minister Zarif’s interview in the New Yorker, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance questioned the Foreign Minister’s comments, affirming that the Ministry supports any program that “enlighten[s] people about the Holocaust.” The spokesperson for the contest also confirmed that they were cooperating with the Ministry on the contest. This is consistent with the general situation in Iran: cultural events such as this one require permission and support of the government in order to take place.

Following Foreign Minister Zarif’s interview, the main spokesperson for the contest, Mas`oud Shoja’i Tabataba’i, said that Zarif was not welcome at the contest. Three months after the close of the Holocaust exhibition, Zarif was questioned in the Iranian parliament about his negative position on the Holocaust contest and exhibition. He replied, “I have always believed that this position [denying the Holocaust] has no benefit for the Islamic Republic… Regarding the exhibition, it was held without any coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I said this is not a government action and I will not show up. The exhibition was the work of an NGO and there was no need for officials to attend.”

Awards, Publicity, and Next Steps

The first prize winner of the contest was Pascal Fernandez (Zeon) of France. Mas`oud Shoja’i Tabataba’i was the Executive Director, a judge, and one of the prize winners in the cartoon contest. The prizes amounted to $50,000. Six awards were given to Iranian cartoonists, two to Brazilians, two to Indonesians, two to Frenchmen, and one each to cartoonists from Turkey, Morocco, India, and Portugal. Majid Mollanoroozi, the Director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the Head of the Graphic Arts section of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, was one of the officials who presented the prizes at the awards ceremony, held on May 31, 2016.

The military and intelligence establishments were the main supporters of the contest and exhibition. For example, most of the publicity for the contest and exhibition was carried by Tasneem and Fars news agencies, both established and run by IRGC. The number of visitors to any of the exhibition venues was not disclosed.