Hasaan Rowhani stirs up a hornet's nest by acknowledging the Holocaust

Groundbreaking statement recognising Jewish Holocaust labelled a fabrication by news agency

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 3:33am

As he conducts a high-profile goodwill visit to New York this week, Iranian President Hasaan Rowhani says he is bringing a simple message of peace and friendship.

But on Wednesday he set off a political storm in New York 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.

Rowhani, in an interview with CNN, described the Holocaust as a "crime 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 the second world war. Rowhani largely repeated his comments in a later meeting with news media executives.

But a semi-official Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating portions of Rowhani's interview, saying he had not used the word Holocaust or characterised the Nazi mass murder as "reprehensible". Rowhani 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 Rowhani 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 hardliners.

Such careful calculations prompted Rowhani to eschew a handshake with US President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly. After weeks of conciliatory moves, including Iran's freeing of political prisoners, Iranian and American officials said they believed Rowhani needed to placate hard-liners in Tehran, who would have bridled at images of an Iranian leader greeting an American president.

When Rowhani sat down later with Amanpour, he was in similarly fraught territory. Asked whether he shared his predecessor's belief that the Holocaust was a myth, Rowhani 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 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 Rowhani'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 how Ahmadinejad once discussed the issue. In an interview with CNN last year he said: "Whatever event has taken place throughout history, or hasn't taken place, I cannot judge that. Why should I judge that?"