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Hassan Rouhani’s Jewish problem

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claps during a press conference in Tehran. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's charm offensive has many fronts. But there's one snag that the recently elected leader keeps hitting in his efforts to convince the Western world that he represents change, conciliation, perhaps even detente. For all the contrasts Rouhani draws with hard-line predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has struggled to overcome the Islamic Republic's reputation for high-level anti-Semitic rhetoric. For all his many conciliatory gestures toward Jews, Rouhani has failed to fully convey conciliation.

The reason that Rouhani's many recent comments about Jews matter is several-fold. Ahmadinejad's years of overt anti-Semitism were, in the West, central to what made him so loathed; by taking such a different tone, Rouhani is implicitly reiterating his long-stated desire to move in a more conciliatory direction.

Perhaps more to the point, Rouhani surely knows that his country's nuclear program is widely perceived as a direct threat to Israel. He also must know that Israeli officials are skeptical of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff. And while of course Jews and Israel are far from synonymous, they've at times been framed as such by Iranian political discourse. So Rouhani's expressions of goodwill toward Jews may well be about more than symbolism, but also about indirectly reassuring Israel -- and thus the United States -- that he is no wild-eyed threat.

Still, Rouhani's comments on Jews, for all their remarkable amicability, have been at times awkward and even equivocal, undercutting his message and raising concerns among skeptics who worry that he may not be all he seems. In this way, his steps and missteps on reaching out to Jews have been symbolic and symptomatic of his larger effort toward the West -- and of the divide Rouhani is creating among those in the West who do and do not take his outreach as genuine.

The first gesture came Sept. 4, seemingly out of nowhere, when a Twitter account associated with Rouhani sent a message wishing "all Jews" a happy Rosh Hashanah. The tweet created such frenzied surprise in the West that presidential officials were forced to finally answer questions as to whether or not the account really represented Rouhani (the answer seems to be yes, though not directly). The Iranian foreign minister's officially verified account later sent Rosh Hashanah wishes as well.

The trouble started last week, in Rouhani's interview with Ann Curry of NBC News in Tehran just before he departed for the United Nations General Assembly. Asked point-blank whether he shared Ahmadinejad's view that the Holocaust was a myth, Rouhani dodged. "I'm not a historian. I'm a politician," he said. "What is important for us is that the people, the nations in our region should get closer to one another."

This week, while in New York, Rouhani -- perhaps aware of the Western backlash against his refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust -- finally acknowledged and condemned the Holocaust in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created toward the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable," he said. "Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn." But, strangely, he refused to address its scale, saying, "I am not a historian, and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect." This was not exactly a gesture in support of Holocaust "revisionists" -- a step below Holocaust deniers, they typically argue that the scale was less than history records, and thus the event less significant -- but it certainly sounded like a careful effort to avoid contradicting them.

For some in the West, Rouhani's condemnation of the Holocaust was a remarkable step forward from eight years of Ahmadinejad, and a significant gesture from a president who still has to answer to the hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, no friend of Israel and ultimately Rouhani's boss. For others, though, his apparent deferral to Holocaust revisionists was a sad reminder of the degree of hostility entrenched in the Iranian political system toward not just Israel, but Jews generally -- and a sign that Rouhani is still part of that system.

Two different narratives of Rouhani's comments toward Jews have emerged in the West, and they run parallel to the two narratives about Iran's larger effort to find detente. For those optimistic about Rouhani or at least willing to hear him out, his apparently unprompted comments signaling friendliness toward Jews are not just a welcome departure from the Ahmadinejad era but a show of good faith. After all, Iran's hard-liners still hold real power in Tehran's fractious political scene, and they could use that power to undercut Rouhani and his outreach. A sympathetic reading of his inability to more fully condemn the Holocaust might suggest that Rouhani is trying to balance, however awkwardly, between Westerners and Iran's hard-liners, both groups he'll need on his side to achieve detente.

For skeptics of Rouhani, though, comments such as "I am not a historian" are a worrying sign that the new Iranian president's gestures toward Jews may not represent the depth of change that others see. In much the same way, the skeptics tend to worry that Rouhani's peace outreach could be, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to believe, a ploy meant only to stave off Western action against Tehran's nuclear program.

There's another dimension to Rouhani's outreach to Jews and to the West -- one that's playing out among Iranian hard-liners, who are as distrustful of the West as some Westerners are distrustful of Iran. Shortly after CNN revealed Rouhani's comments acknowledging and condemning the Holocaust, Iran's hard-line semiofficial Fars News Agency came out with a story accusing CNN of fabricating the quotes.

This was not the first time that hard-line Iranian media have attempted to push Rouhani away from conciliation toward Jews or Israel. In early August, on Iran's annual Quds Day celebration -- typically a day when Iranian officials brandish their most heated anti-Israeli rhetoric -- Rouhani issued a relatively mild statement decrying the occupation of Palestinian lands but stopping short of condemning Israel, much less Jews, as Ahmadinejad had so often done. But hard-line Iranian media misquoted their new president, falsely stating that Rouhani had called Israel "a wound ... that must be destroyed."

Hard-liners in Iran tend to oppose detente with the West of the sort that Rouhani advocated. And they often argue that Israel "uses" the Holocaust to justify the occupation of Palestinian lands, which is why they see any Iranian recognition of the Holocaust as abetting the occupation. This is wrong, of course, but it's still a political reality in Tehran, where Rouhani will have to sell any nuclear deal he makes with the West.

There is probably no way for Rouhani to fully win over both Western skeptics of Iran and Iranian skeptics of the West, whether it comes to the Holocaust or to the possibility for a nuclear deal. But he'll need to avoid overly alienating either group if he wants to make that deal happen. The challenge of walking that line is a reminder of just how difficult detente will be -- and that the challenges are much larger than this one man and his language toward Jews.