Next month, the world’s largest book fair opens its doors in Frankfurt. One country will take the stage with particular self-confidence: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
You read that correctly. Iran has the world’s highest rate of imprisoned journalists. Tehran bans newspapers, shuts down galleries, arrests critics and flogs artists. Thousands of book drafts have been censored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. “We cannot lift controls on the book market and thus allow harmful books to enter the market,” Ali Khamenei, the leader of the regime, has declared.
None of this should be new to the Frankfurt Book Fair’s organizers. Since June, the Book Fair has been funding the exile of censored Iranian author Mohammad Baharlo, who has taken refuge in Frankfurt. “Defense of freedom of speech” is an obligation of the Book Fair, explained Juergen Boos, the Fair’s director, at a July 25 press conference honoring Mr. Baharlo. So why is the Fair willing to give a platform to Mr. Baharlo’s persecutors?
The forthcoming event will not only exhibit regime-compliant publishing houses such as “Aryan Thinker” and “Sacred Defense.” The Iranian embassy in Germany is also planning an “effective [and] targeted presence” in Frankfurt, according to the embassy’s website. A regime delegation led by Mohammad Azimi, a former vice minister in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, will be in attendance.
In a July interview with the Iran Book News Agency, Mr. Azimi, who is currently the managing director of Iran’s Cultural Fairs Institute, called the Frankfurt Book Fair “an ideal venue for cultural interactions.” In order to find “an appropriate spot for Iran’s pavilion,” he said, “negotiations have taken place with the managers of the Frankfurt Book Fair as well as Iran’s ambassador to Germany. So far we have managed to get a 96-square-meter pavilion located near the pavilions of European countries while the previous year the space was about 80 square meters.” In addition, “a hall will be allocated to Iran in which speeches will be delivered on the publications and culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran and today’s Iran.”
It is obvious that the Iranian regime has more than just book selling in mind. A prestigious appearance in Frankfurt will strengthen the impression that the Western world is split on Iran, and that Tehran is able to thwart Western isolation.
The Book Fair has confirmed that Mr. Azimi’s Cultural Fairs Institute will be given a booth but declined to comment on its size. In my correspondence with Book Fair organizers, I drew attention to Tehran’s most recent anti-Semitic slanders, which have been condemned by the United Nations and the European Union. Were these grounds for the Book Fair to exclude Iran’s national stand?
The Fair’s officials said no. Katja Böhne, the Fair’s vice president of marketing and communications, told me that “The Frankfurt Book Fair sees itself as a commercial platform in which everyone who meets the terms of business can participate as an exhibitor. . . . This includes the independent organization of promotional and informational events, that are open to every exhibitor and can be used by them, as long as they do not thereby violate German law.”
The Frankfurt Book Fair has stood up for freedom of speech in the past. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the murder of British author Salman Rushdie. The Book Fair responded by excluding Iran for three years.
This June, the regime issued another call for murder, this time against Shahin Najafi, a poet and singer who lives and works in Germany. I pointed out to the Book Fair that the regime has put a bounty of $100,000 on Mr. Najafi’s head, compelling him to go into hiding.
Their answer was remarkable: The Book Fair “feels a responsibility to support the development of free structures in the field of publishing and literature all over the world. . . . This necessarily includes convergence via a sustained dialogue with precisely those countries in which the publishing of books and content meets with political difficulties.”
This “convergence” sends clear signals of accommodating terror and betraying freedom of expression, while undermining those countries that want to change Iran’s nuclear behavior through concerted pressure on the regime. Just as it is impossible to maintain a relaxed friendship with neo-Nazis, it is also impossible to do relaxed business with a regime such as Iran’s.
Mr. Küntzel is a political scientist in Hamburg.