10/07/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2013

Lost in Translation?!

Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani certainly overshadowed the world's debates at the 68th session of the General Assembly at the United Nations.

President Rouhani and his accompanying team, the smiles not leaving their faces during their five-day visit to New York, drew all the attention to themselves in the positive atmosphere that the US media had created for them.

This began with Rouhani's interview with NBC television in Tehran and then with the famous US interviewer Charlie Rose for PBS and Christiane Amanpour on CNN. The US media wanted to hear if the new president was really looking for improvements in Iran's relations with the West and especially with the US, both the US and the Iranian presidents saying that they had exchanged letters before Rouhani's departure from Tehran for New York.

In spite of Syria topping the agenda for discussion at the General Assembly debates, Iran stole everybody's attention when Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry met on Tuesday. The meeting between the two took place on the sidelines of the 5+1 meeting on Iran's disputed nuclear programme, and the two officials talked privately for 30 minutes in an attempt to put an end to three decades of mistrust and disputes between the two nations.

While the US and Russia had not previously been able to find common ground for agreement on a resolution on the Syrian crisis at the Security Council, suddenly both reached a deal shortly after US President Barack Obama picked up the phone and called Rouhani on Friday noon.

The resolution on Syria, approved on Friday evening by both Russia and the US, was along the lines of what Iran had wished for and lifted the threat of US military action against Syria, raising speculation that Iran's flexibility over its nuclear programme has saved the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, at least for a while, allowing the two major powers to find agreement on the issue.

The 68th session of the General Assembly was one of the most important assemblies of recent years. After three decades of bitterness and mistrust, Iran and the US finally warmed to each other and prepared the ground for further negotiations. The wind of change had already begun in Iran's Foreign Ministry with the change of Iran's ambassadors in key places and in neighboring countries, and it soon stretched to Iran's mission at the United Nations.

The time of dealing with political matters by the security and intelligence agencies now seems to be over, and fresh and more moderate diplomats are replacing the current ones. These changes are likely to upset hardliners in Iran, but as long as Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, continues to support the new government it will be hard for the opposition to Rouhani to cause major problems for the president.

In the light of the new goodwill between Iran and the US, the situation in Syria could be solved faster and sooner than expected. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the long-waited Geneva II Conference on the country will be held in November. Before this happens, Iran is scheduled to meet with the 5+1 group for intensive talks over its nuclear programme on 15 and 16 October, also in Geneva.

The secretary-general said that he had discussed the situation in Syria with Iran as well as with France President François Hollande. While Iran has been unofficially invited to the Geneva Conference, this invitation has not yet been made official, and it seems that the US has been waiting to hear more about Iran's commitment to solve the nuclear issue before announcing Iran's attendance at the conference.

Iran has apparently discussed halting its enrichment of high-grade uranium and reducing its stockpiles. If such compromises were indeed made by Iran during the five-day visit of Rouhani's team to New York, it is not surprising that Obama chose to make a telephone call direct to Rouhani.

Iran has even admitted the need for a correction to the language used by Khamenei and the regime when describing the Holocaust or Israel. The denials of the Holocaust by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were a cause of controversy eight years ago and were used by the Israelis to describe Iran as a major threat to world peace and security.

Israel pressured the Americans to put harsher sanctions in place against Iran due to what it saw as the threats from Iran to Israel's security. But today, the new government in Iran has been putting out a different view on the Holocaust, saying that it had also been condemned by Khamenei as a crime against humanity.

On Sunday evening, Zarif in a live interview with ABC said the Holocaust "was not a myth" and was an act of genocide committed by the Nazis against the Jews. When the interviewer read a phrase from Khamenei's official English website in which he said the Holocaust was a myth, Zarif said that this was "a poor translation, or perhaps something that has been quoted out of context". Much could be missed when translating from Persian, Zarif said, adding that often the precise meaning could be lost in translation.

When the presenter asked if this misinterpretation could be corrected on the supreme leader's website, Zarif smiled and said that "I will talk to them." Meanwhile, in a Twitter exchange with the daughter of the House minority representative Nancy Pelosi, Zarif said that "Iran has never denied the Holocaust and the person who seems to have denied it has now gone."

In an interview with CNN last week, Rouhani also condemned the Nazi crimes against the Jews and used the word Holocaust. The Iranian government-run Fars News Agency said that CNN had mistranslated some of Rouhani's statements, however, downplaying any suggestion that the Holocaust was not a historical fact.

According to the Fars translation of the CNN interview, the Iranian president did not use the term "Holocaust", but instead referred to "historical events." He also did not use the term "reprehensible", according to the news agency.

CNN said that it had not mistranslated Rouhani's comments about the Holocaust to make him sound more moderate. The conservative Fars Agency thus claimed a mistranslation for the use of the internal market, while Zarif claimed another mistranslation, this time on the supreme leader's website and for the use of the international market.

Perhaps we have all misunderstood Iran for years, with much of the country's intentions being "lost in translation". Should Iran now want to play a positive role in the region, it is time that the misinterpretations of the past 34 years are retranslated.

This article has been syndicated from Al-Ahram Weekly.

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