Since his election earlier this summer, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has broken with his predecessor in a number of ways — most notably at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, when he admitted that the Holocaust did, indeed, happen. By contrast, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the extermination of 6 million Jews in World War II a “myth,” an “unreliable claim” and “a pretext for establishing the Zionist regime.”
In an ideal world, politicians wouldn’t gain credit for acknowledging basic historical facts supported by mountains of empirical evidence, but then again, we don’t live in an ideal world.
“I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable,” Rouhani said. “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn.”
Now, there are still shades of historical revisionism in there. Notice that he referred to “whatever criminality they committed against the Jews.” This doesn’t actually assert that there was any criminality; it could, technically, imply an absence of any criminality. He also prefaced his comments by saying that “I am not a historian, and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect.”
Still, that’s a far cry from denying that the Holocaust happened, and it’s not the first step Rouhani has taken to try and repair the Iranian government’s relationship with Jews. The sole Jewish member of Iran’s parliament, Siamek Moreh Sedgh, accompanied Rouhani to the UN summit in New York this week, and Rouhani even recently wished Jews a “blessed Rosh Hashanah” via tweet.
The moves are part of a larger effort on Rouahni's part to rebuild Iran’s relationship with the west. He’s made moderate moves on the issue of his country’s nuclear program, which is the primary substantive issue of contention between Iran and the United States. He recently freed a dozen Iranian political prisoners, and his speech to the UN yesterday was largely focused on conciliation with the west. He’s even become penpals with Barack Obama.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian political analyst living in Israel, suspects that Rouhani’s statements represent the limit as to how far as he can go without incurring the wrath of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also denies that the Holocaust ever happened.
“Rouhani will have to watch his step. Although taking Iran's Jewish MP to the UN may somewhat improve Iran's image abroad, at home where it most matters, it is unlikely to help him much,” Javedanfar writes. “In fact, Rouhani may soon find that going against Khamenei's denial of the Holocaust may be too costly."