Quite naturally, the American focus on Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations this week was on his assurances that his nation’s hugely controversial nuclear development program has nothing but peaceful purposes.
The problem, of course, is that Iranian leaders have been saying that for years, and international nuclear experts — not to mention the White House through several presidencies — have never been convinced. Thus, there are severe economic sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy, and that fact may have induced the change in tone in Tehran.
Rouhani’s bellicose predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was so antagonistic to Iran’s critics that, no matter how loudly he protested to the contrary, he only increased the global suspicions that Iran was working diligently to arm itself with nuclear weapons and thus further destabilize the vulnerable political and military situation in the Middle East.
But Rouhani’s U.N. appearance had more to it than the question of Iran’s nuclear intentions, as important as that question may be. Although there are many who may not yet be ready to believe he truly is a moderate leader, he did take steps to suggest he is a fresh voice with a message of optimism.
He was even accompanied to New York by Iran’s only Jewish member of parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh. And in a significant interview after his speech, Rouhani made it clear that his views of the Holocaust are totally the opposite of those expressed by Ahmadinejad, who often called it a myth propagated by the West.
“I’ve said before that I am not a historian, and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect,” Rouhani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “But, in general, I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews as well as non-Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn.”
But if those sentiments were designed to mollify Iran’s foes, they did little to diminish the hostility toward Iran from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, referring to Rouhani’s statement about Iran’s nuclear intentions, called it “a cynical public relations ploy.”
In fact, the Israeli delegation walked out during Rouhani’s speech, and Israel’s minister for strategic and intelligence affairs, Yuval Steinitz, told The Associated Press that the Iranian leader’s rhetoric was a “game of deception.”
But after so many years of Ahmadinejad’s belligerence, even a change in tone can be considered progress.
The United States should encourage Rouhani to continue his moderate approach, while always remembering Iran’s actions, including its support of terrorists and Syria, are what matter.