WASHINGTON — As he conducts a high-profile good- will visit to New York this week, Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, said he is bringing a simple message of peace and friendship. But on Wednesday, Rouhani set off a political storm here and in Iran, with a frank acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust that landed him in precisely the kind of tangled dispute he had hoped to avoid.
Rouhani, in an interview Tuesday with CNN, described the Holocaust as a “crime the Nazis created toward 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 World War II. Rouhani largely repeated his comments in a meeting with media executives on Wednesday.
But a semiofficial Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating portions of Rouhani’s interview, saying he had not used the word Holocaust or characterized the Nazi mass murder as “reprehensible.” Rouhani spoke in Persian; officials at CNN said they used a translator 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 Rouhani 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 hard-liners.
Such careful calculations prompted Rouhani to eschew a handshake with President 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 Rouhani needed to placate hard-liners in Tehran, who would have bridled at images of an Iranian leader greeting an American president.
“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,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Rouhani avoided other land mines at the United Nations. His comments to the General Assembly, though less inflammatory than those of Ahmadinejad, touched on similar themes and grievances: the lack of international respect for Iran, the West’s refusal to recognize its right to enrich uranium, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
But when Rouhani sat down later with Amanpour, he moved into fraught territory.
Asked whether he shared his predecessor’s belief that the Holocaust was a myth, Rouhani 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 or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed toward 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 Rouhani’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 the way Ahmadinejad once discussed the issue.
In an interview with CNN in 2012, he said: “Whatever event has taken place throughout history, or hasn’t taken place, I cannot judge that. Why should I judge that?”
The complex political crosscurrents were on display in the Iranian news media’s coverage of Rouhani’s day at the United Nations. A reformist newspaper, Shargh, published pictures of Rouhani and Obama during their speeches, with the headline “Perhaps Another Time” — a reflection of the letdown among average Iranians about the missed opportunity for a handshake.
But another paper, Kayhan, which is close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed horror over the possibility that “the clean hand of our president would for moments be in the bloody clench” of Obama.