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Why Did Rouhani Not Reject Holocaust Denial?

24/09/2013 10:57 BST | Updated 23/11/2013 10:12 GMT

You have to hand it to the new Iranian President. The Washington Post op ed, the NBC interview. Ahead of Rouhani's much anticipated visit to New York for the UN General Assembly, he's got the world singing his tunes. All the right buzz words are there: "peace and stability among all nations", "win-win game", "friendship and dialogue."

Progress that should be welcomed right? Well reading the full transcript of the interview Rouhani gave to NBC last week is not so heart-warming. Quite aside from calling the Israeli government a "usurper government" and improbably claiming Iranian support to Syria was humanitarian, when asked whether he agreed with Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust was myth, Rouhani fluffed his lines.

"I'm not historian. I'm a politician," he said.

Bzzz. Wrong answer. You don't have to be a historian to acknowledge the Holocaust, just an average human being in touch with reality. Holocaust denial is on the intellectual level of flat-earthism, hardly fitting of the 'courageous' and 'wordly' statesman, we have heard so much about.

So why did the new Iranian president - Western-educated, smooth talking etc. etc. - make no attempt whatsoever, even implicitly, to distance himself from this position, which helped make Ahmadinejad so reviled in the West?

Some might dismiss this as an irrelevant question. After all, the Iranians having a warped view of history may be unpleasant, but it's not what really threatens either Israeli or Western interests. But whilst the questions of the moment may relate to enriched uranium and spinning centrifuges, the failure to acknowledge the Holocaust should not be forgotten. It is a sign that Rouhani represents not a different Iranian world view, but a smarter set of tactics.

Holocaust denial is not just some obscure fad. It is an antisemitic conspiracy theory that puts the Jews at the heart of a sinister plot to fake their own genocide in order to manipulate the world to their political ends. Rouhani's failure to distance himself from this view shows up just how cheap and shallow his much vaunted new year's twitter greeting to the Jews really was.

Clearly some combination of domestic and international pressure has forced the Iranian regime to change tack. It is right that Western powers test Rouhani and find out if Iran, under the pressure of sanctions and possible military action, is willing to step back from the breakout capacity that it is (according to the latest IAEA report) striding towards.

But whether or not there turns out to be new policy behind the new rhetoric, we should not get carried away by the charm offensive, and we should remain open eyed about the world view of the people we are dealing with. Failing to acknowledge the Holocaust is Holocaust denial; no less so for it being spoken by a more articulate man, in a nicer room, with better lighting.