Dispute over remarks on Holocaust reveals diplomatic minefield

Translation of Iranian president’s interview with CNN challenged by Iranian news agency

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at a meeting with United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at a meeting with United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Fri, Sep 27, 2013, 01:00

A row over the interpretation of comments made by Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani about the Holocaust illustrates the domestic sensitivity around Tehran’s new conciliatory overtures to the US and the slow approach ahead to the thawing of relations between the two countries.

Mr Rouhani gave an interview to CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour on the fringes of the UN general assembly where the Iranian president has made peaceful gestures to the US and her allies.

Asked whether he agreed with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust was a myth, Mr Rouhani told CNN, speaking in Farsi, that the Holocaust was a “crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews”, describing it as “reprehensible and condemnable”, according to an interpreter.

Iran’s semi state-run Fars news agency disputed the translation, saying that Mr Rouhani did not characterise the Nazi mass killings during the second World War as “reprehensible” and did not refer to the “Holocaust”.

Instead, he spoke indistinctly about “historical events”, Fars said, suggesting that Mr Ahmadinejad’s successor was not breaking as strongly as first thought from the Iranian leadership’s past Holocaust denials.

Independent translation
The Wall Street Journal checked Mr Rouhani’s comments with an independent translation and found that Fars had interpreted the Iranian’s comments accurately.

The US newspaper reported that Mr Rouhani had not referred to the Holocaust per se, but said, “I am not a history scholar”, and that “the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers”.

This interpretation shows Mr Rouhani’s comments were in fact far more nuanced and qualified, in line with the position held by many Holocaust deniers who acknowledge that Jews were killed by the Nazis, but dispute the numbers killed or that there was genocide in an attempt to eliminate the race.

The translation provided by Fars is similar to rhetoric used by Mr Ahmadinejad in the past when he said that he could not judge events that had taken place throughout history.

CNN has said that the Iranians provided the translator for the Rouhani interview and that the news network would post the full tape of the interview along with the audio of the translation.

Other sections of the US media reported comments made by Mr Rouhani where he appeared to repudiate his predecessor’s denials. He told the group of reporters that he condemned the “massacre” of Jews that took place during the second World War, but would leave it to historians to decide how many were killed.

“The Nazis carried out a massacre that cannot be denied, especially against the Jewish people,” NBC News reported Mr Rouhani as saying.

Last week, Mr Rouhani dodged a question on Mr Ahmadinejad’s repeated denials that the Holocaust took place when he was interviewed by NBC in Tehran, saying he was a politician and “not a historian”.

Mr Ahmadinejad said in speech in Tehran in September 2009 that the West lied about the Holocaust as a “pretext for establishing the Zionist regime” and supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

His comments fuelled Israeli fears that Tehran was intent on an attack.

Israel has rejected Mr Rouhani’s claim that the facts of the Holocaust are for historians to authenticate. Recognising the existence of the Holocaust “just required being a human being”, said a statement released by the office of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.

The political storm over the new comments, sparked by the Iranian news agency, shows the challenge Mr Rouhani faces from hardliners at home uneasy at Tehran’s recent conciliatory signals to the West.

While Mr Rouhani is seen as a moderate, he chose not to meet President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN gathering of world leaders.