Rouhani addresses the UN General Assembly. (AFP)
Washington, Sept. 26: Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, says he is bringing a simple message of peace and friendship as he conducts a high-profile goodwill visit to New York this week.
However, yesterday, Rouhani set off a political storm here and in Iran, with an acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust that landed him in precisely the kind of tangled dispute he had hoped to avoid.
Rouhani, in an interview on Tuesday with CNN, described the Holocaust as a “crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews” and called it “reprehensible and condemnable”. It was a groundbreaking statement, given that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied the systematic extermination of Jews during World War II. Rouhani largely repeated his comments in a meeting with news media executives yesterday.
But a semi-official Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating portions of Rouhani’s interview, saying he had not used the word Holocaust or characterised the Nazi mass murder as “reprehensible”. Rouhani spoke in Persian; officials at CNN said they used an interpreter provided by the Iranian government for the interview, which was conducted by Christiane Amanpour.
The dispute over his comments reflects the extreme delicacy of the Holocaust as an issue in Iranian-American relations. More broadly, it speaks to the political tightrope Rouhani is walking, trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with the US that will ease sanctions to please everyday Iranians, without provoking a backlash by hardliners.
Such careful calculations prompted Rouhani to eschew a handshake with President Obama at the UN General Assembly. After weeks of conciliatory moves, including Iran’s freeing of political prisoners, Iranian and American officials said they believed Rouhani needed to placate hardliners in Tehran, who would have bridled at images of an Iranian leader greeting an American President.
“Shaking hands with Obama would have won Rouhani huge points with the Iranian public, but it would have angered Iran’s hardliners,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Rouhani avoided other land mines at the UN. His comments to the General Assembly, though less inflammatory than those of Ahmadinejad, touched on similar themes and grievances: the lack of respect for Iran, the West’s refusal to recognise its right to enrich uranium, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
But when Rouhani sat down later with Amanpour, he moved into fraught territory. Asked whether he shared his predecessor’s belief that the Holocaust was a myth, Rouhani replied, according to CNN’s translation, that he would leave it to historians to judge the “dimensions of the Holocaust”.
But he added, “In general, I can tell you that any crime or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people — is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.”
The Iranian news agency Fars, which has ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, posted its own translation of Rouhani’s answer, and claimed that he did not use the word “reprehensible” and that he said historians should be left to judge “historical events”, not “the Holocaust”.
That translation resembles more closely the way Ahmadinejad used to discuss the issue. In an interview with CNN in 2012, he said: “Whatever event has taken place throughout history, or hasn’t taken place, I cannot judge that. Why should I judge that?”
In what appeared to be an effort to head off criticism of Rouhani, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported yesterday that the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, said the President had presented Iran’s clear and revolutionary stands in his UN speech.
For Israel, it is evidence that Iran is bent on its elimination, and this is why Israel is so determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
While American Jewish leaders characterised Rouhani’s remarks as a modest step forward, they remained deeply sceptical of Iran’s intentions and its readiness to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
“Assuming the accuracy of the translation, for me his comments are duly noted,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “But he’s only acknowledging, and rather belatedly, the universally acknowledged truth of the last 70 years.”