WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (JTA) — Iran’s president has shot to the forefront of Holocaust denial in recent days, but it may seem more like self-denial: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad need only look to his country’s Hitler-era past to discover that Iran and Iranians were connected to the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, as was the larger Arab and Islamic world under the leadership of the mufti of Jerusalem. Iran’s links to the Third Reich began during the pre-World War II years when it welcomed Gestapo agents and other operatives to Tehran, allowing them to use it as a Middle East base for agitation against the British and the region’s Jews. Key among these Gestapo men was Fritz Grobba, Berlin’s envoy to the Middle East, and often called “the German Lawrence” because he promised a Pan-Arab state stretching from Casablanca to Tehran. Relations between Berlin and Tehran were strong from the moment Hitler came to power in 1933, when Reza Shah Pahlavi’s nation was still known as Persia. The shah became a stalwart admirer of Hitler, Nazism and the concept of the Aryan master race. He also sought the Nazis’ help in reducing British petro-political domination. So intense was the shah’s identification with the Third Reich that in 1935 he renamed his ancient country “Iran,” which in Farsi means Aryan and refers to the Proto-Indo-European lineage that Nazi racial theorists and Persian ethnologists cherished. The idea for the name change was suggested by the Iranian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of Hitler’s trusted banker Hjalmar Schacht. From that point, all Iranians were constantly reminded that their country shared a bond with the Nazi regime. Shortly after World War II began in 1939, the mufti of Jerusalem crafted a strategic alliance with Hitler to exchange Iraqi oil for active Arab and Islamic participation in the murder of Jews in the Mideast and Eastern Europe, predicated on support for a Pan-Arab state and Arab rule over Palestine. During the war years, Iran became a haven and headquarters for Gestapo agents and German operatives. It was from Iran that the seeds of the abortive 1941 pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad were planted. After Churchill’s forces booted the Nazis out of Iraq in June 1941, the German air crews supporting Nazi bombers escaped across the northern border back into Iran. Likewise, the mufti of Jerusalem was spirited across the border to Tehran, where he continued to call for the destruction of the Jews and the defeat of the British. His venomous rhetoric filled the newspapers and radio broadcasts of Tehran. From Tehran and elsewhere, the Mufti was a vocal and vigilant opponent of allowing Jewish refugees to be transported or ransomed into Palestine. Instead, he wanted them shipped to the gas chambers of Poland. In the summer of 1941, with the support of key Iranian military and government leaders, the mufti advocated implementing in Iran what had failed months earlier in Iraq. The plan once again was for a total diversion of oil from the Allies to the Nazis in exchange for the accelerated destruction of the Jews in Eastern Europe and support for an Arab state. Through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Iran already had been supplying Hitler’s forces in occupied Czechoslovakia and Austria. Now the mufti agitated to cut off the British and the Allies completely and supply Germany in its push against Russia and the East. In October, 1941, British, Russians and other Allied forces invaded Iran to break up the Iran-Nazi alliance. Pro-Nazi generals and ministers were arrested and the shah’s Western-leaning son was installed. The mufti scampered into the Italian Embassy, where he shaved his beard and dyed his hair, and was then allowed to exit the country along with the rest of the Italian delegation. Once the mufti relocated permanently to Berlin, where he established his own Reich-supported “bureau,” he was given airtime on Radio Berlin. From Berlin and other fascist capitals in Europe, the mufti continued to agitate for the destruction of international Jewry, as well as a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic alliance with the Nazi regime. He called upon all Muslims to “kill the Jews wherever you see them.” In Tehran’s marketplace, it was common to see placards that declared, “In heaven, Allah is your master. On Earth, it is Adolf Hitler.” When the mufti organized three Islamic Waffen SS divisions to undertake operations in Bosnia, among the 30,000 killers were some volunteer contingents from Iran. Iranian Nazis, along with the other Muslim Waffen SS, operated under the direct supervision of Heinrich Himmler and were responsible for barbarous actions against Jews and others in Bosnia. Recruitment for the murderous “Handschar Divisions” was open and public in Iran. Iran and its leaders not only were aware of the Holocaust, they played both sides. The country offered overland escape routes for refugee Jews fleeing Nazi persecution to Israel — and later fleeing postwar Iraqi fascist persecution — but only in exchange for extortionary passage fees. Thousands of Jews made their way to Israel via Iran both during the Holocaust and after the fall of Hitler, when Arab leaders, especially in Iraq, tried to continue Germany’s anti-Jewish program. Iran profited handsomely. To play all sides of the Holocaust drama — and now to deny that the Holocaust even happened — should be very difficult in a nation named for Hitler’s master race. Edwin Black is the author of “Banking on Baghdad,” which revealed the extent of the Arab-Nazi alliance.