When President Hasan Rouhani won the most recent Iranian election, most mainstream Western news sources were quick to declare him a “moderate,” and compared to his predecessor he certainly does appear to be more reasonable. But simply saying he is a moderate will not make him one and this latest mess over his comments on the Holocaust is a perfect example.
In case you missed it here is what happened: CNN reported a story with the headline “Iran’s new President: Yes, the Holocaust happened.” Unfortunately that was not exactly true. Rouhani did not say that the Holocaust happened, or even that there was an event called the Holocaust. The word did not appear in his statement and CNN placed words in his mouth. Here is what he actually said, according to Iran’s Fars News:
“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.”
In other words, Rouhani is saying that Iran condemns the crimes that the Nazis committed. He is not saying that the Nazis targeted Jews specifically, that they killed six million of them, that they used gas chambers or concentrations camps, that it was genocide, and that they did so with the intention of ridding the world of Jews. Instead he pretends not to know basic facts of European history and passes the duty of “clarification” off onto historians. Why? The truth of the Holocaust has been known for decades.
There is a whole subsection of Holocaust denial that freely acknowledges that Nazis killed Jews but “questions the scale” or the intentions behind it. It appears that the Iranian regime has not ended its Holocaust denial but simply has shifted from one form to another. If anyone else except the leader of Iran mirrored Rouhani’s point of view, there would be no question that he or she was a Holocaust denier. Yet because Rouhani is less blatant and proud of his denial than Ahmadinejad, CNN could not wait to praise him for his statement.
Let’s also remember that Rouhani is but a figurehead, he is not the one who has supreme power in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini is, and his people are already distancing themselves from Rouhani’s statement. Hamid-Reza Taraghi, an official who interprets for Khameini said, “We need to gain something from the Americans, before we pose and smile with them…Of course, Mr. Rouhani also needed to convince some at home that he is not making any wild moves.” It is unlikely that this skepticism will be seen by most Americans.
Although even CNN’s translation does not contain Rouhani acknowledging that an event called the Holocaust occurred, the belief that he recognized it quickly circulated around the Internet. At this point thousands of people are under the mistaken impression that Rouhani has acknowledged the Holocaust in a large break from his predecessor. Why are Westerners so quick to believe something that isn’t true?
The answer can be found in confirmation bias. It’s a very human tendency to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and ignore information that does not. Just stop and think for a second about how great it would be if Rouhani actually is a moderate. America and Iran could negotiate and solve their differences successfully and Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program could be ended peacefully. Iran could then transition into a freer and more democratic society. We certainly wouldn’t need to worry about a potential war with Iran anymore and the whole issue could just “go away.”
That certainly would be nice, if it were the reality. But mistranslations and hope cannot change the facts: all candidates for President of Iran have to be vetted by the ruling regime and their power can be subverted at any time. Even if Rouhani really did have any power of his own, he has been a regime insider for years and strongly backs Iran’s “right” to nuclear power. His refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust and reliance on weasel words is ultimately a sideshow to the real issues, but it is a solid acid test of how much the regime has changed with his election. Apparently it hasn’t changed that much.
It would be a welcome relief if Rouhani is in fact as moderate as he appears to be. But hoping that he is a moderate won’t make him one, and it would be unwise for the West to continue to let confirmation bias shape their views on him. It will be action and not words that changes Iran’s relationship with the international community. If this Holocaust denial controversy is an indication of how little has changed, then this issue is no closer to being resolved than it was a year ago.