What Did Iran’s President Really Say About the Holocaust?

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Sept. 26 2013 3:17 PM

Rouhani on the Holocaust: I’m Not a Historian, Man

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Iran's President Hassan Rouhani sits with his delegation during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the 68th United Nations General Assembly, in New York, September 26, 2013.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

What is it about Iranian presidents, Jews, and questionable translations? After years of back and forth over whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” this week’s visit by newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani to the United States has set off a mini-controversy over what exactly he believes about the Holocaust.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.

It all started with a sit-down interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last night, in which he was asked about Ahmadinejad’s outspoken denial of the Holocaust. “Do you accept what it was? And what was it?” Amanpour asked him. Here’s his reply, according to the CNN transcription, which was taken from the live English translation done by an Iranian government-provided translator:

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I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.

But in general, I can tell you that any crime or - 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. And just as even such crimes are - if they are to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being as such, we shall again condemn it.

So what the Nazis did is condemnable. The dimensions of whatever it is, the historians have to understand what it is. I am not a historian myself, but we - it must be clear here, is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or - or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people.

So if the Nazis, however criminal they were, we condemn them, whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, because genocide, the taking of the human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what.

For us, it's the same. It's the taking of a human life and an innocent human life is (INAUDIBLE) in Islam. It's actually something that we condemn and our religion also rejects.

But this does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view.

So there should be an even-handed discussion of this.

CNN’s website has headlined the Interview, “Iran President Acknowledges Holocaust.” The New York Times described it as an “acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust.”

But Iran’s FARS news agency, which has ties to the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, quickly accused CNN of fabricating the quote, and posted its own translation of the answer:

 "I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, (but) the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar."

There’s certainly a difference in tone, and note that in this version, Rouhani doesn’t use the word “Holocaust” or the phrase “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn,” described by FARS as the worst of the fabrications. It should be noted that FARS' account has some distortions of its own. It condenses its excerpt of the CNN transcript without any acknowledgment, omitting key passage and making the CNN version look worse than it actually was. This also isn’t the first time FARS has attempted to do damage control on the new president’s comments about Jews. Earlier this month, it denied that he had anything to do with a Rosh Hashanah message sent out by a Twitter account associated with his presidential campaign.

The Wall Street Journal followed up, reporting that “Our independent translation of Mr. Rouhani's comments confirms that Fars, not CNN, got the Farsi right.” Arash Karami of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse blog, provides yet another version, using Rouhani’s full answer rather than the condensed version provided by FARS. Karami’s version is somewhere between the two, condemning what happened but suggesting he’s not able to comment on the scale of it:

I have said before that I am not a historian and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of historical events, historians should explain and discuss it.

But in general, I can say that any crime that is committed in history against humanity, such as the crimes committed by the Nazis, whether against Jews or non-Jews, from our viewpoint is completely condemned. Just as if today a crime is committed against any nation, religion, ethnicity or belief, we condemn that crime or genocide.

Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemnable. The dimensions of it which you say, is the responsibility of historians and researchers to make those dimensions clear. I am not a historian myself.

However, this point should be clear: If a crime took place, that crime should not be a cover for a nation or group to justify their crimes or oppression against others. Therefore, if the Nazis committed a crime, and however much it was, we condemn that, because genocide or mass murder is condemned.

From our viewpoint, it doesn’t matter if the person killed is Jewish, Christian or Muslim. From our viewpoint, [it] does not make difference. Killing an innocent human is rejected and condemned. But this cannot be a reason for 60 years to displace a people from their land and say that the Nazis committed crimes. That crime [too] is condemned; occupying the land of others is also condemned from our viewpoint.

If you read Farsi, you can check out the official version at Rouhani’s presidential website.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Senior Correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, who was born and raised in Iran and writes the excellent Persian Letters blog, told Slate by e-mail that Rouhani's official transcript matches what he actually said as opposed to the translated version. In this version, he does condemn the crimes of the Nazis, whether against Jews or others, but says he's "not a historian" when it comes to the scale of events. Rouhani doesn’t use the word “Holocaust,” which doesn’t actually have an exact Farsi translation.

So why does this matter? The Journal notes that “pretending that the facts of the Holocaust are a matter of serious historical dispute is a classic rhetorical evasion” used by deniers. Michael Moynihan of the Daily Beast, writes that “Using the definition accepted by mainstream scholars of Nazism, Rouhani is a moderate Holocaust denier”.    

On the other hand, it’s also undoubtedly true that Rouhani’s comments made a distinction between himself and his predecessor. Whatever his feelings about Israel (the second part of Rouhani’s quote in which he says the Holocaust should not be a justification for “occupying the land of others” was probably actually the main point of his answer) it’s clear that this probably isn’t a president who’s going to be taking time out of his schedule to host Holocaust denial conferences in Tehran, or really talking about the Holocaust at all unless he’s asked about it.

Rouhani’s answer seems, in fact, to be purposely open to interpretation. “He seems to have carefully chosen his words in order not to anger hardliners in Iran,” says Esfandiari. As for reaction in the United States, “optimists are likely to say he did condemn the Holocaust. Pessimists will say it was not a clear condemnation.”

As with his U.N. General Assembly speech, which included a staunch defense of Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program but offered potential avenues for diplomacy, Rouhani often seems to be playing to multiple audiences. The same dynamic also seems to be in effect in his tentative outreach to the Obama administration. As Iran scholar Karim Sadjadpour told the New York Times, “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.”

Rouhani’s response brings to mind the evasions sometimes used by U.S. politicians when presented with clear scientific realities, such as evolution or the actual age of the planet, that aren’t politically popular to acknowledge. Yes, it’s not exactly encouraging that Rouhani can’t simply acknowledge the existence of a major and exceedingly well-documented historical event without any hedging, but we shouldn't be too shocked when a politician sometimes plays to the base.