Iran's new president has already raised the hopes of many in the West who think he could be the key to a new and more tolerant Iran, but there's one controversial position he can't seem to escape.
When doing interviews with English-speaking outlet, Hassan Rouhani has routinely been asked for his opinions on the Holocaust, mainly because his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regularly declared it to be a fiction. When asked about it by NBC's Ann Curry last week, he basically ducked the issue, but in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, Rouhani appeared to go a little bit further, confessing that crimes had been committed against the Jews by the Nazis.
Here's a translation of his direct answer as provided by CNN:
"I have said before that I am not a historian, and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, was reprehensible and condemnable as far as we are concerned." [Emphasis added]
On the surface, to even admit that atrocities were committed seems like a remarkable break from previous leaders of Iran, even if he went on to add that it still didn't give the Jewish people the right to create create Israel and "occupy someone else’s land." Baby steps, are still steps sometimes.
However, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz points out, admitting that the Nazis did awful things isn't the same as admitting the Holocaust was real. There are plenty of people who concede that mass murders took place during World War II, but are still considered Holocaust "deniers," because they insist that gas chambers and organized slaughter did not exist or that death counts are wildly inflated.
So where Rouhani fall? Well, it doesn't help that Iran's official state news agency is trying to undo Rouhani's comments, by blasting CNN for spreading misinformation. The FARS agency claims parts of Rouhani's answer were "fabricated" and the translation provided by CNN was misleading. They insist he never used the word "Holocaust" and his actual sentence was not "the crime the Nazis committed towards the Jews," but actually "whatever criminality they committed against the Jews." That's a much more qualified response that makes it clear Rouhani's preferred stance (at least in America) is to take no stance at all. (Note his repeated use of the phrase, "I am not a historian."
Critics of Rouhani and Ahmadinejad are quick to point out (rightly) that the messages Iranian leaders send out to the world are often far different than those they give at home, where their rhetoric against Israel and the United States is much harsher and combative. (The website RealRouhani.com has a fitting selection of how his quotes can change depending on the audience.) While he may be slightly less beligerant than Ahmadinejad was toward the West, the distinction between outright denying the Holocaust and refusing to admit it was true, is a very small one. And Iran's official position on that doesn't seemed to have changed.