By Josh Levs and Mick Krever, CNN
Iran's new president has acknowledged that Nazis killed Jews, furthering the stark contrast between himself and his predecessor, who called the Holocaust a "myth."
In a wide-ranging interview with CNN, he also discussed Israel and Syria.
"Any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews, was reprehensible and condemnable," President Hassan Rouhani said in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
"Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, because genocide, the taking of the human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what. For us it's the same."
He also referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"But this does not mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crimes against a group, now therefore they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned. There should be an even-handed discussion," Rouhani said, speaking through a translator.
Rouhani emphasized that he is "not a historian."
The Anti-Defamation League responded quickly.
"It is about time an Iranian leader acknowledged the Holocaust as a tragic fact of history," ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a written statement.
"But in practically the same breath President Rouhani engaged in the more subtle form of Holocaust revisionism, minimizing it by accusing the Jewish survivors of taking vengeance on the Palestinians in fulfilling their 2,000-year-old dream of returning to their homeland, Israel. This was a gratuitous swipe at the survivors.
"There is no moral equivalency between the slaughter of 6 million Jews and millions of other innocent men, women and children in the Nazi gas chambers and the plight of the Palestinian people living in the West Bank and Gaza. The Iranians, apparently, are willing to come only so far."
Days earlier, in an interview with NBC, Rouhani declined to say whether the Holocaust happened.
The country's previous president, the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, infamously called the Holocaust a myth.
"If the Holocaust is a reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives?" he once asked.
CNN asked Rouhani about another of Ahmadinejad's remarks - that Israel should be wiped off the map.
"We have no intention of attacking any country or getting into a war with any country," he said. "Even if our armed forces are built up, it is for defense purposes alone."
The "issue of Palestine" should be resolved through the ballot box, he said.
In New York for the U.N. General Assembly, he brought along the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament.
"Our effort here is to tell the world public opinion that Iran is not only not anti-Semitic, but rather that it respects the customs and beliefs of the Jewish people," Rouhani said.
"We are proud of our history of peaceful coexistence with followers of all belief systems," he said.
Human rights organizations have chronicled Iran's treatment of some religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha'i faith.
Despite the recent release of more than a dozen political and religious prisoners in Iran, "religious minorities and other prisoners of conscience in Iran continue to suffer for their beliefs, including more than 100 imprisoned members of the Baha'i community and its leadership," said Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a statement Monday.
Also, "a renewed crackdown on Protestant Christians in recent weeks has led to numerous arrests," the commission said. "Of those Christians already imprisoned, Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini continues to languish in Evin prison while his eight-year sentence was upheld just last month."
Rouhani told CNN he is pursuing a citizenship charter that will work to improve freedoms. "So I will spare no effort to ensure that those who are currently in prison will see an opening door," he said.
Iranian president on Syrian conflict
Rouhani also addressed Iran's role in the Syrian civil war.
Some Iran troops are fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Amanpour noted.
Rouhani insisted the Iran's involvement does not even number hundreds of people.
"We have close relations with Syria from a long time ago," he said, adding that Iran has military attaches and experts stationed there.
Asked about Iranian weaponry being used by the Syrian regime, Rouhani cautioned against baseless "propaganda."
"Are you encouraging the regime to give up its chemical weapons as the deal between the U.S. and Russia says?" Amanpour asked.
"We believe in general that the entire region of the Middle East has - as far as that region is concerned - all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, have to be eradicated from the region," Rouhani responded.
Iran is glad Syria has committed itself to the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said.
Rouhani on why no meeting with Obama
"I would like to say to American people: I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans," Rouhani said in English, marking the first time he's spoken the language in a TV interview since becoming president. For the rest of the interview Rouhani spoke Farsi.
In many ways, Rouhani is the "it" man of the U.N. General Assembly, as Western leaders look to gauge whether his diplomatic overtures will translate into concrete policy changes.
There was widespread speculation that he and U.S. President Barack Obama might meet face-to-face.
"There were some talks about" a possible meeting, Rouhani told Amanpour through a translator. "And preparation for the work was done a bit as well."
But no such meeting happened.
Two senior U.S. administration officials told CNN Tuesday that the encounter was called off because it was considered "too complicated" for Iran back home.
"I believe we didn't have sufficient time to really coordinate the meeting to the full extent that we needed to," Rouhani told CNN.
Given that U.S. and Iranian leaders have not met face-to-face for 35 years, he said, "we must give time for diplomacy to work itself, for dialogue to come about, for circumstances to be laid properly."
Still, the two men recently exchanged letters, and Rouhani said the ice is "already beginning to break because the environment is changing and that has come about as a result of the will of the people of Iran to create a new era of relations between the people of Iran and the rest of the world."
Resolving the standoff over Iran's nuclear program is the priority, he said. "If the nuclear issue is settled conclusively, I believe that that will pave the way for numerous other issues that can be discussed."
Iran insists its program is for energy purposes; the United States and several other countries believe it could be a guise for building nuclear weaponry.
Rouhani also called for sanctions against his country to be lifted.
Rouhani said he has full permission from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to negotiate with the West.
"I think that the president of Iran has the authority whenever the national interest of the country is involved," Rouhani told Amanpour. "The supreme leader of Iran has said that should negotiations be necessary for the national interest of the country, he is in fact not opposed to it."
"Now, if an opportunity was created today, had arisen today," the Iranian president said, "and the prep work for that had been done, most probably the talks would have haven taken place, primarily focused on the nuclear issue or the developments on the Middle East. Therefore the supreme leader, I can tell you, has given permission for my government to freely negotiate on these issues."
Rouhani: Social media may be coming to Iran
An irony surrounding Rouhani's leadership is that his office tweets and posts on Facebook - even though those social media platforms are banned in Iran.
"All my efforts are geared to ensure that the people of Iran will comfortably be able to access all information globally and to use it," he told CNN. "There are large social networks at a global level around today. And I believe that all human beings have a right, and all nations have a right to use them."
He also noted that some countries including Iran have "ethical frameworks" that they try to follow.
The Iranian government needs "to be open to criticism" expressed through social media, he said. "So one of my plans is to reduce the problems that people face currently on these issues, so that within those sort of moral frameworks that we have for ourselves, that we are able to access these social network sites."
CNN's Joe Sterling contributed to this report.