WASHINGTON – Could the Jewish New Year herald a fresh start in Iran?
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was known for incendiary anti-Semitic comments, questioning whether the Holocaust was “a real event” and once suggesting that Israel be “wiped off the map.”
So it was more than a little surprising Wednesday when a tweet went out from an account carrying the name of Ahmadinejad’s freshly inaugurated successor, Hassan Rouhani, saying:
As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah. pic.twitter.com/tmaf84x7UR— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 4, 2013
A similar message was later sent from an account belonging to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated veteran diplomat:
Happy Rosh Hashanah— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 5, 2013
[Updated 2:59 p.m. PDT, Sept. 5: Perhaps the messages weren’t meant for domestic consumption. Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency on Thursday quoted a senior advisor to Rouhani as saying that that Twitter account may be operated by the president’s supporters but not by Rouhani himself. Any “official news” about Rouhani is released by the president’s office, the advisor was quoted as saying.
However, an Iranian diplomat confirmed that the account attributed to Zarif belongs to him.]
Christine Pelosi, daughter of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, replied to Zarif:
Thanks. The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir. “@JZarif: Happy Rosh Hashanah”— sfpelosi (@sfpelosi) September 5, 2013
On Thursday morning, Zarif responded: “Iran never denied it. The man who did is now gone. happy new year.”
Zarif later changed that to: “The man who was perceived to be denying it.”
@sfpelosi Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 5, 2013
Still, it was a remarkable exchange that set tongues wagging among Iran-watchers, who have hoped that Rouhani’s election would bring a fresh start and more openness in the Islamic Republic’s dealings with the West.
“Iranian leaders have realized that to end their isolation, they need to enhance their image,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst with the think tank International Crisis Group. “Hence the diplomatic charm offensive that is more innovative and less timid than anticipated.”
Rouhani, a legal scholar who took office Aug. 3, has pledged more transparency in Iran’s disputed nuclear program. A diplomatic standoff over the program has prompted the United States and European countries to impose harsh sanctions that have further cut Iran off from the world economy.
Rouhani’s administration announced Thursday that the Foreign Ministry would take charge of nuclear negotiations, another signal that Iran may soften its hard-line stance at the next round of talks with the United Nations nuclear agency, scheduled to begin Sept. 27. For years, Iran’s main nuclear negotiator was Saeed Jalili, who was perceived as close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei is still Iran’s all-powerful figure. But after years of growing isolation, many analysts see a concerted effort by the Rouhani administration to reach out to the West – with the expectation that the United States and its allies will reciprocate.
Christine Pelosi, for one, seemed encouraged. She wrote:
Hi Marco. It certainly seemed from his tweet that a new day has dawned in Iran. #hope? @cappamarco— sfpelosi (@sfpelosi) September 5, 2013
[For the Record, 2:59 p.m. PDT: An earlier version of this post said that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted a Rosh Hashanah message. A senior presidential advisor told Fars News Agency that the Twitter account in Rouhani’s name may be operated by his supporters, but not by the president himself.]