In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

Iran's Rouhani urges West to 'seize' moment for diplomacy

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On the eve of his trip to New York, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continued his charm offensive, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday urging world leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” and his “mandate” for “prudent engagement.”

“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” Rouhani wrote in the Post. “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.”

Rouhani’s push for dialogue on both regional and nuclear issues came as the White House continued to assert U.S. willingness for direct talks.

“We have heard a lot in the world from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And President Obama believes we should test that assertion, and we are and we will do that.”

In his letter to Rouhani, “the President indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” Carney said. “The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency.”

Ahead of Rouhani's arrival in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was scheduled to meet with Iranian scholars and think tank experts in New York Friday. Zarif is due to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Monday, and with the British and Russian foreign ministers later in the week.

Rouhani will likely meet with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Tuesday, a French official told Al-Monitor Friday.

The White House has signaled Obama’s openness to meet with Rouhani, but has previously said there are no current plans for a meeting.

The media has gone into a frenzy about the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani handshake in New York. Both leaders are due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday September 24th, Obama as the second speaker in the morning, and Rouhani, the seventh, in the afternoon.

“People here [in Washington] will want to see something very real from Tehran,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor Friday. “And of course the US has to reciprocate. But from the dominant US perspective, the onus is on Iran.”

Amir Mohebbian, a political commentator in Iran, told the New York Times in an interview that Iran is seeking short-term relief from sanctions imposed on its ability to transfer money. “We particularly want to be readmitted to the Swift system,” Mohebbian told the Times. What Iran would be willing to trade for such a concession is not yet clear, but scholars in the orbit of Zarif and Rouhani have suggested they would be amenable in an end-state deal to more aggressive IAEA monitoring and safeguards, capping enrichment at 5%, and limiting the number of Iran's centrifuges and enrichment sites.

“All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at Foreign Policy Thursday. “If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.”

The new Iranian “administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened,” Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence analyst, wrote at the National Interest. “The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.”

(Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Getty.)zp8497586rq