Iran president’s Holocaust condemnation disputed
A semiofficial Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating portions of President Hasan Rouhani’s interview, saying he had not used the word Holocaust or characterized the Nazi mass murder as “reprehensible.”
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — As he conducts a high-profile goodwill visit to New York this week, Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, says he is bringing a simple message of peace and friendship. But Wednesday, he triggered a political storm in the U.S. and in Iran, with a frank acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust that landed him in the kind of tangled dispute he had hoped to avoid.
Rouhani, in an interview taped Tuesday with CNN, described the Holocaust as a “crime the Nazis committed toward 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 Wednesday.
But a semiofficial Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating portions of Rouhani’s interview, saying he had not used the word Holocaust or characterized 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. CNN released some excerpts from the interview in advance of its broadcast later Wednesday.
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 United States that will ease sanctions to please everyday Iranians, without provoking a backlash by hard-liners.
Such careful calculations prompted Rouhani to eschew a handshake with President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly. After weeks of conciliatory moves, including Iran’s freeing of political prisoners, Iranian and U.S. officials said they believed Rouhani needed to placate hard-liners in Iran, 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 caused Iran’s hard-liners a conniption,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Rouhani avoided other land mines at the United Nations. His comments to the General Assembly, though less inflammatory than those of Ahmadinejad, touched on similar themes and grievances: the lack of international respect for Iran, the West’s refusal to recognize 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 toward 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.”
In what appeared to be an effort to head off criticism of Rouhani, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Wednesday that the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, said the new president had presented Iran’s clear and revolutionary stands in his United Nations speech.
While American Jewish leaders characterized Rouhani’s remarks as a step forward, they remained skeptical 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, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “But he’s only acknowledging, and rather belatedly, the universally acknowledged truth of the last 70 years. That does not warrant a standing ovation.”
The complex political crosscurrents were on display in the Iranian news media’s coverage of Rouhani’s day at the United Nations. A reformist newspaper, Shargh, published pictures of Rouhani and Obama during their speeches, with the headline “Perhaps Another Time,” a reflection of the letdown among average Iranians about the missed opportunity for a handshake.
But another paper, Kayhan, which is close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed horror over the possibility that “the clean hand of our president would for moments be in the bloody clench” of Obama.
White House officials said Rouhani’s decision showed he is an astute political player who knows how to calm hard-liners at home while charming audiences abroad. Those are skills they say he will need to navigate the treacherous waters of Iranian politics.