Iranian President Hassan Rouhani repudiated his predecessor's Holocaust denials on Wednesday, saying the Nazis "committed a crime against Jews" but that the question of "scale" should be left to historians.
"The Nazis carried out a massacre that cannot be denied, especially against the Jewish people," he said in an informal conversation with a small group of U.S. reporters, including NBC News.
Last week, in Tehran, Rouhani hedged when asked by NBC News' Ann Curry to comment on ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinjead's repeated denials that the Holocaust happened, saying he was a politician and not a historian.
Now in New York for the United National General Assembly, Rouhani has been striving to present himself as a moderate in the hopes of jump-starting talks on his country's nuclear program and getting economic sanctions rolled back.
Asked again about the Holocaust, he did not duck the issue.
"The massacre by the Nazis was condemnable. We never want to sit by side with the Nazis," he said. "They committed a crime against Jews — which is a crime against Christians, against Muslims, against all of humanity."
He did hedge on the specifics.
"The Nazis committed a crime in World War II," he said. "As to the scale of the massacres, and the numbers that my predecessor mentions, let's leave that to the historians."
Rouhani's address to the General Assembly on Tuesday was far more toned-down than any speech given to the world body by Ahmadinjead. And he called for "immediate" talks on the nuclear program and said Iran would never seek to develop an atomic weapon.
"There is nothing we have hidden or seek to hide," he said. "Where there is a reasonable concern we are ready to give assurances to all the negotiating parties."
He also said the level of enrichment and the number of nuclear sites can all be placed on the negotiating table, with the "aim to alleviate concerns."
"The endgame is the removal of everyone's concerns and the restoration of Iran's rights to enrich uranium," he said.
Rouhani also spoke for the first time about the skipped opportunity to meet or even shake hands with Obama — an encounter that White House officials said proved to be “too complicated” for Rouhani back home.
The Iranian president expressed the need for caution.
"We have no problem shaking Mr. Obama's hand or negotiating but we need a plan of action to ensure these meetings create the conclusions that we want," he said. "We did not have enough time to make it happen.
"We never have a problem shaking Mr. Obama's hand," he added. "It was two days ago that the U.S. proposed a meeting and we were not opposed.
"This is a very sensitive subject. We have not talked at that level for 35 years. We must take these steps carefully."
Timothy Clary / AFP - Getty Images
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waits to speak Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly.
First published September 25 2013, 11:44 AM