CNN denies it did any such thing, but the Wall Street Journal and Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast beg to differ. New Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive at the United Nations this week began with an exclusive interview with Christiane Ammanpour, in which CNN claimed that Rouhani acknowledged the Holocaust in a major shift by the Iranian government. In fact, they’re still claiming that in the headline for this report on the controversy — “Iran’s new president condemns Holocaust”:
Did he actually say that, though? CNN insisted that he did, but state-run Fars News in Iran accused CNN of mistranslating Rouhani. CNN stands by their reporting, in part because Rouhani’s own interpreter provided the translation to CNN. While that may indemnify CNN against this particular claim, it still raises all sorts of questions about CNN’s own standards for independent journalism, however. Why would CNN rely on the official Iranian translator rather than hiring one of their own?
The Wall Street Journal took that step, and came back with a different message:
Reasonableness at last. That was the general reaction Wednesday to the news that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to acknowledge and condemn the Holocaust during an interview this week with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Previous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had rarely missed an opportunity to call the Nazi genocide of six million Jews a “myth.” But Mr. Rouhani has adopted a more tempered tone, and the world longs to see him as someone with whom “we can do business together,” as Margaret Thatcher once said about Mikhail Gorbachev.
One problem: The words attributed to Mr. Rouhani are not what he said.
According to CNN’s translation of Mr. Rouhani’s remarks, the Iranian President insisted that “whatever criminality they [the Nazis] committed against the Jews, we condemn.” Yet as Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars pointed out, Mr. Rouhani never uttered anything approximating those words. Nor, contrary to the CNN version, did he utter the word “Holocaust.” Instead, he spoke about “historical events.” Our independent translation of Mr. Rouhani’s comments confirms that Fars, not CNN, got the Farsi right.
So what did Mr. Rouhani really say? After offering a vague indictment of “the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and the non-Jews,” he insisted that “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.”
In other words, Rouhani dodged it. Moynihan explains why it’s even a little worse than that:
But while Revolutionary Guards philologists are rather insistent that Rouhani never said “Holocaust,” condemned “whatever criminality [the Nazis] committed against the Jews,” or said the word “reprehensible,” all agree that he employed the old Holocaust deniers tricks of “questioning” the death toll, averring that many others groups were also victims, and claiming that a well-established historical fact requires further examination by “historians and researchers,” while repeatedly pointing out that he is “not a historian” (Ahmadinejad told NPR in 2010, that he was “not a historian” but that “we should allow researchers to examine all sorts of questions because it’s quite clear that when they do, they will reach different conclusions”). And even in CNN’s translation, Rouhani condemns unspecified “crimes,” while encouraging historians to “clarify” what actually happened.
It’s important to remember that the skilled Holocaust denier parses, dissects, and molests language, quibbling with the word “denial”—they typically acknowledge that many Jews died, but were victims of various typhus epidemics—and wondering why shadowy forces are hamstringing dissenting historians.
So Rouhani’s view of Holocaust historiography is, broadly, the position staked out by bonkers British historian David Irving. And The New York Times routinely—and correctly—tags Irving with the Holocaust-denier label. So how did they describe Rouhani? In an account headlined “Iran’s Leader, Denouncing Holocaust, Stirs Dispute,” Times writers Mark Lander and Thomas Erdbrink described Rouhani’s remarks as a “frank acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust” (after I tweeted my objection to the line, the Times quietly removed the word “frank,” though didn’t acknowledge the change). Mediaite headlined, “Iranian President: I Won’t Deny Holocaust Happened, It Was ‘Reprehensible and Condemnable.’” On Amanpour’s CNN blog: “Iran’s new president: Yes, the Holocaust happened.” It was almost enough to nominate Rouhani as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
Aren’t our moral standards for Iranian theocrats rather too elastic? It’s lovely that Iran’s new moderate president wants to moderate his government’s reputation for being a viper’s nest of lunatics, thugs, and anti-Semites, but must so many representatives of the fifth estate—a wholly owned arm of the you-know-who lobby—be willing to redefine “moderation” and “condemnation” along Iranian lines? Using the definition accepted by mainstream scholars of Nazism, Rouhani is a moderate Holocaust denier.
In other words, we have another example of an American media outlet misrepresenting the words of a world leader in order to craft a narrative. Sounds familiar, eh? Why does this matter in this case? Ahem:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he looked forward to a “good meeting” with Iran and major powers on Thursday but would not address what Iran needed to do to show a genuine desire to address its nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meets his counterparts from Britain, China, France,Germany, Russia and the United States at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) to discuss Western suspicions Iranmay be seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies this.
Asked what he needed to hear from the Iranians to show they were serious about addressing those concerns, Kerry, speaking to reporters as he began a meeting with China’s foreign minister, replied: “I’ll let you know after they’ve been serious.”
Asked if he thought the Iranians would be serious, he said: “We’re going to have a good meeting, I’m sure.”
Be sure to bring your own translators, Mr. Secretary.
Update: Can’t wait to see if CBS hired its own translator for this interview:
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani further distanced himself Thursday from his conservative predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not only acknowledging but condemning the Holocaust. He was keen to add, however, that the Nazi’s brutal massacre of the Jews should be viewed in a “separate” light to the current crisis facing the Middle East.
“In principle, we and I condemn the massacre carried out by the Nazis in the World War II,” Rouhani told Charlie Rose. “I’ll also add that many groups were killed by the Nazis in the course of the war, Jews in specific, but there were also Christians, there were Muslims.”
“I’ll tell you that my government [and] I condemn the massacre, the killing of people, any group. I’ll tell you that when an innocent person is killed, we never go about asking or inquiring whether they were Jewish or Christian or Muslim. That’s not our way or creed. We simply say that we condemn any killing, any massacre, and therefore we condemn the massacre of the Jewish people by the Nazis, as we also condemn the other massacres that took place in the course of the war.”
“Why would I want to deny it?” Rouhani asked. “Not only do I (not) deny the criminal acts of the Nazis, we condemn it.”
Were there other Nazi massacres? Of course, especially on the Eastern front, but none as systematic as the industrial campaign of annihilation that targeted the Jews in Europe. And I’d wait for a couple of independent translations before assuming that CBS got this ambiguous and weak-tea acknowledgment correct.