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.”

What Iran’s Foreign Minister told German TV about Israel, Iran

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Germany’s Phoenix TV on Sunday (February 2) in Berlin, following his attendance at the Munich Security Summit.

Al-Monitor has transcribed portions of the interview, conducted in English by ZDF journalist Elmar Theveßen, concerning Zarif’s comnents on Israel.

Israeli media reports over the weekend said that Zarif in the interview suggested that if the Israelis and Palestinians reached a peace settlement, then Iranian recognition of Israel might be possible.

But as we listened to the interview, the video of which was released in the original English on Tuesday, it was the interviewer who asked Zarif if Israel and Palestine reached a resolution, would Iran then be prepared to recognize the state of Israel. And Zarif’s answer was more equivocal. While not explicitly ruling it out, Zarif said it was up to the Palestinians to determine if they were satisfied with the agreement, and that Iran would not interfere:

Phoenix TV: So let me turn this around, sir. Would it be fair to say then, would you agree, that If the Palestinian issue can be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, would then Iran be willing to recognize the state of Israel?

Zarif: You see, that is a sovereign decision that Iran will make. But it will have no consequences on the situation on the ground in the Middle East. If the Palestinians are happy with the solution, then nobody, nobody outside Palestine, could prevent that from taking place. The problem for the past 60 years is that the Palestinians have not been happy. The Palestinians have not been satisfied. And they have every right not to be satisfied, because their most basic rights continue to be violated and people are not ready to redress those.

Here is the transcript of the relevant portion of the interview, from about 20 to 30 minutes in, below the jump: Continue reading

Rouhani Says Nuclear Issue Can Be Resolved

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In a mostly off the record discussion with about two dozen editors and political analysts, including Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that “the nuclear issue can be resolved,” and condemned the Nazi Holocaust against the Jewish people, hoping to close the chapter on the legacy of Holocaust denial by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On the nuclear front, Rouhani said Iran is ready to “provide assurances, talk, and negotiate an agreement.” Speaking through an interpreter, he stressed that Iran has nothing to hide, that all of Iran’s sites are under IAEA supervision and will remain so, and that Iran expects its legal and full rights as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). On the levels of uranium enrichment which Iran would be allowed for its nuclear program, Rouhani said that Iran seeks the same privileges as the other 40 or so countries which have signed the NPT and have the capacity for enrichment. “Nothing less, nothing more,” he said.

A source close to the delegation told Al-Monitor that the use of the language of the NPT in the speech by US President Barack Obama on Tuesday was well received in Iran, as was Obama’s reference to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons.

In response to a question about his position on the Holocaust, Rouhani made plain his difference with former Iranian president Ahmadinejad by condemning the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews and others during World War II, much as he did in an interview Tuesday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have tried to reach out to the Jewish community, using Twitter to issue Rosh Hashana greetings earlier this month. Rouhani was also accompanied to the discussion Wednesday by Moreh Sedgh, Iran’s only Jewish member of parliament, Rouhani’s Twitter account said. Israel, however, has rejected the overtures, charging the Rouhani ‘charm offensive’ is a cynical ploy meant to deceive gullible audiences in the West.

The White House said Tuesday that it had expressed interest in an Obama Rouhani encounter in New York, but the Iranians ultimately declined, indicating domestic complications.

“It was clear that it was too complicated for them,” a senior US official said.

Before boxers get in the ring to fight, they shake hands, an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor Tuesday, to explain the Iranian decision not to meet with Obama at this time.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday as part of a P5+1 foreign ministers meeting.

Andrew Parasiliti contributed the report.

(Photo: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during session with reporters in New York, September 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of Gideon Rose.)