Context key to understanding Iran's statements about Holocaust

Boston, Massachusetts - It just might be that big changes between Iran and the Jewish world are afoot. It all began on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, when Hassan Rouhani, Iran's newly-elected President, tweeted "As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah."

Shortly after, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a similar greeting, to which Christine Pelosi, daughter of US House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, responded: "The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial." Zarif replied, "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone." These tweets were followed by further, albeit nuanced, acknowledgements of the Holocaust in Rouhani's interview with CNN in New York a few weeks later.

After eight years of unabashed hostility from Rouhani's predecessor, these words hint at a welcome sea change.

Rouhani's presidential campaign offered Iranians a new, more productive relationship with the West. Hungry for widespread reform, tired of isolation on the world stage and exacting sanctions, Iranians elected him resoundingly.

Rouhani is, without question, reaching out to the West - and also specifically to Jews - in ways unheard of during the past decade. But he and Zarif also operate in a political reality that includes the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a cadre of hard-liners. So, while exploring new avenues of communication, Rouhani and his government are navigating carefully.

In Christiane Amanpour's CNN interview Rouhani described the Holocaust as a "crime that the Nazis committed toward the Jews" that was "reprehensible and condemnable." But he also said that he would leave it to the historians to judge its "dimensions." While seemingly neutral, to some observers this second statement suggested - to their dismay-- that for Rouhani the magnitude of the Holocaust's horror may be overstated.

A few days later, on ABC's "This Week," Zarif affirmed that the Holocaust was no myth, and that a statement suggesting otherwise on Ayatollah Khameini's website was a mistranslation. He continued, "We condemn the killing of innocent people whether it happens in Nazi Germany or...is happening in Palestine." Zarif acknowledged the Nazis' mass murder of European Jews, but also alluded to Iran's claim that Israel has used that history to deflect criticism of its treatment of the Palestinians. His statement, like Rouhani's, was viewed by some as a degradation of the Holocaust's immensity.

Both comments are framed by the domestic backdrop of a Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guard, neither much inclined toward Holocaust recognition.

Taking issue with the Holocaust's enormity is offensive, and will continue to hamper Iran's efforts at normalisation with the West. At the same time, invocation of the Holocaust by some Israeli leaders as justification for that nation's continued occupation of the West Bank - including, for example, reference to the pre-1967 lines as "Auschwitz borders" - is at best unhelpful. And insofar as Iran is concerned with both the Palestinians' plight and with repairing relations with the West, its leaders could do no better than endorse the Obama administration's efforts at brokering a comprehensive agreement, designed to result in two sovereign states, a secure Israel and a viable Palestine, living side by side in peace.

With their messages to Jews and to the West, Rouhani and Zarif are treading new ground, but carefully. This is understandable: they're speaking to multiple audiences, each with their own interests. As they manage these pressures, we'll listen for conciliatory words, and more importantly, we'll watch for concrete actions that support those words.

But this isn't a one-way street.

It also falls on the United States, Israel and the international community to speak and act in ways that help the new Iranian leadership, and their people, move closer to reconciliation with their neighbours and the broader world. As talks on Iran's nuclear programme begin this week, there is no better time than now.

As a Jewish American, I thank Mr Rouhani and Mr Zarif for their Rosh Hashanah tweets. And with hope for reconciliation and peace, on this Eid al-Adha, I say to them, and to the Iranian people, Eid Mubarak (a blessed holiday).

* Michael Felsen is an attorney and former President of Boston Workmen's Circle, a 110-year old communal organisation dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture and social justice. This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 October 2013. Copyright permission is granted for publication.