Cold War Revival and Holocaust Denial: Munich Conference Less Than Reassuring

By in Munich

After the shock of Putin's speech, with its Cold War echoes, came Iran's nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, who declared Iran a peace-loving nation and then denied the Holocaust. Europe's annual security conference in Munich left a lot of people feeling insecure.

Iran's nuclear negotiator Dr. Ali Larijani in Munich on Sunday. The text behind him reads "Peace through Dialogue."
AP / Sicherheitskonferenz / Sebastian Zwez

Iran's nuclear negotiator Dr. Ali Larijani in Munich on Sunday. The text behind him reads "Peace through Dialogue."

The gaunt, bearded, bespectacled Dr. Ali Larijani, who resembles a history professor -- except for the things he says -- reversed his decision last week to call in sick at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, and delivered a speech on Sunday called "Security in the Middle East."

He tried to come across as a friend to Europe. "Iran has no aggressive intent against any other nation," he said, only one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a swaggering anti-American speech. "When in our history," Dr. Larijani added, "did we ever fight a war against Europe?"

Larijani serves the Iranian government as its nuclear negotiator. He's one of the most powerful men in Tehran, and what he said in Munich was important because of a rapidly-approaching United Nations deadline to resolve international tension over Iran's nuclear program. The UN will discuss a tougher sanctions regime after February 28 if Iran still won't cooperate.

But Larijani didn't change his tone. On the contrary, in Munich he displayed a mix of stubbornness and charm. "Certain powers don't want us to have peaceful nuclear technology," he said, brushing off charges that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. "Without democracy there can be no lasting peace," he added.

But what does he mean by democracy? Larijani believes democratic principles can be "different from country to country." One can't "impose standards and norms" from one society to another. The West has chosen "secularism as the basis of democracy," while the Iranian system is "based on Islam."

Larijani's speech also touched on the war against drugs. Iran played "a positive role" in that effort, he said, but was still demonized by the United States as part of the "Axis of Evil." He said maintaining "tunnel vision on the nuclear question" was a mistake. Larijani implied that the nuclear standoff might be solved in the next three weeks through a bilateral willingness to talk.

However the German Green Party's security expert, Winfried Nachtwei, who attended the conference, was skeptical. There was "no movement" in Iran's position, he said, so Larijani's optimism about a breakthrough was "hard to take seriously after the experience of the last few years."

Not quite Holocaust denial

But the real surprise came at the end, during a question-and-answer session. Larijani said he didn't want to take questions on three controversial topics -- Israel, Holocaust denial or the suspension of Iran's nuclear program as a prerequisite for talks. But US Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that if Larijani had any doubts about the Holocaust, he could make a short trip to the Dachau concentration camp, which is outside Munich.

Larijani was cornered. In his answer he talked about an "overreaction" to the Holocaust. In any case, he said, "That's a historical matter," which has "nothing to do with us." He was "neither for, nor against" the idea that the Holocaust had really occurred, saying it was an "open question."

He thus delicately danced around a straight denial of the Holocaust, which is illegal in Germany. If Larijani had voiced the well-known opinion of his own president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he could have been arrested.

On the same day in Tehran, though, President Ahmadinejad gave a speech to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution and made defiant noises about the nation's nuclear program. He fell short of an expected announcement that Iran had started installing 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at its plant in Natanz, but thousands of people still cheered the speech and held up banners reading, "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

"Not exactly coherent"

A member of the German parliament who was present at Larijani's speech, Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Larijani's comments on the Holocaust were "completely unacceptable" and undermined what Larijani had come to Munich to instill, namely trust in Iran. "I didn't feel that today," he said.

Guttenberg, a member of Germany's conservative Christian Social Union party, was just as unsettled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech to the Munich conference a day earlier. Putin "did himself and us no favors with his America-bashing," he said.

The Russian leader surprised a lot of people in Munich by challenging America's dominance of world affairs in frank, undiplomatic language, which US Defense Secretary Robert Gates replied to with a terse warning about a new Cold War.

Guttenberg rejected the "Cold War" rhetoric entirely. "The Cold War had a fatal logic and coherence," he said, but Putin's speech had "a lot that was not exactly coherent."

Gert Weisskirchen, a member of Germany's left-leaning Social Democrats, called the speech "a psychological mistake." He added that Putin had stepped to the podium "as a macho man, and overdid his muscle flexing." Weisskirchen's colleague, Social Democratic floor leader Peter Struck, said the speech was foolhardy because "Russia would only lose" a 21st-century Cold War.

With reporting by Spiegel staff

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