Foreign Minister's Controversial Tweet Draws Polarized Response

Written with ASL19

Iranian politicians’ social media activity is something of a novelty within Iran, especially given the filtered status of many of these sites. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s popular Twitter account recently drew national and international attention when he tweeted “Happy Rosh Hashanah” on September 5th.

Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine responded on Twitter, “Thanks. The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial, sir.” Zarif immediately replied, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”

Iranian conservative media immediately attacked Zarif for straying from the path of the revolution and interpreted this as a sign of weakness toward the West, while reformist newspapers praised this as evidence of working to improve Iran’s international standing.

An op-ed in reformist Bahar noted that this New Year greeting is a part of Iran’s public diplomacy efforts and reformist Mardom Salari wrote, “It is now the time to show Iranians’ peace-loving face and their hatred for any kind of oppression against any ethnic group or nation, be it Holocaust or Sabra and Shatila, and get Iran’s derailed foreign policy train back on track.” Other writers praised Zarif’s gesture and noted how different the response to this has been compared with responses to official statements, and urged critics to pay attention to the positive reception and direct citizen engagement on social media platforms it had inspired. For example, on Facebook, one commenter wrote, “Mr. Zarif’s comment about Iran never denying the Holocaust is correct. Even Imam [Khomeini] who was a pioneer in defending Palestinian rights never questioned the Holocaust.”

Conversely, Iran’s conservative media started their attacks only hours after the tweet was sent out. Kayhan’s managing editor Hossein Shariatmadari was most vociferous in his September 8th opinion piece, where he faulted Zarif for not denying the Holocaust and breaching diplomatic etiquette by insulting a former president, and clarified that even prior to Ahmadinejad’s term, historians questioned the Holocaust.

Rajanews website launched a harsh critique in an article entitled, “Unveiling the Vulgar Approach to Public Diplomacy,” which argued that Zarif lowered public diplomacy to the level of Twitter and Facebook posts and alienated billions of Muslims around the world in an effort to please Israelis. Siasat Rooz weighed in by asking Zarif, “Why didn’t [he] remind that girl about the real holocaust? Why didn’t [he] mention that with this sixty-year-old-excuse, Palestinians have been deprived of their basic rights? It was unthinkable that you sir, with all your wit and elegance, would think this way.” News sites like Alef, Mashregh and Jahan News also published articles strongly criticizing Zarif and their readers’ comment sections became hotbeds of animated discussions both in defense and critique of Zarif. The polarized reactions to Zarif’s performance thus far reflect the divisions in public opinion likely to punctuate Rouhani’s administration.

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