Maybe the Jewish New Year really has ushered in the positive change it’s supposed to represent. Over the past few days, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and foreign minister, Mohammah Javad Zarif, took to Twitter to wish the world a happy Rosh Hashanah. The messages are a sizable departure for the adamantly anti-Israel country, which also has the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country in the Middle East, and some are treating their content, and the politicians’ mere presence on the democratizing social media site, as a beacon of hope.
A European Union diplomat who has led negotiations with Iran, Javier Solana, tweeted on Thursday: “Iran’s new pres & FM new to Twitter: Let’s hope they bring new policies, boosting chance of peace.” A spokeswoman for the State Department told The Washington Post that the United States hopes the tweets indicate a willingness to “engage substantively”—the last time I checked, not exactly what Twitter is for.
I don’t want to rain on anyone’s New Year’s parade, but it’s worth pointing out that Twitter hasn’t reformed the other unsavory political leaders who have used it as a mouthpiece. In 2012, Salon ran an article observing that some governments had developed a “double-barreled strategy” for quelling social media dissent, which combined “classic repression” with “promoting their own views using the very same platforms.” For example, in Bahrain, where the government has cracked down on popular protests violently and repeatedly since they began in 2011, the monarchy ran a campaign called “We are all Hamad,” urging citizens to post pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on their Facebook and Twitter profiles. More recently, Chechnya’s repressive president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has proved himself a pro at Instagram. And much has been made of Syria's Assad family’s social media presence, from their 11-year-old son Hafez’s Facebook post telling the U.S. to bring on the firepower—“I just want them to attack sooo much, because I want them to make this huge mistake of beginning something that they don’t know the end of it”—to the presidency’s official Instagram, which my colleague Noreen Malone recently parsed.
To be fair, Rouhani and Zarif’s Rosh Hashanah messages look a lot more promising than Hamad bin Isa Al Kalifa’s glad-handing or Hafez al-Assad’s warmongering. But the @HassanRouhani account has also been disseminating some soundbites that seem suspiciously similar to the usual anti-western PR. “Only way to interact w/ Iran is dialogue on equal footing, confidence-building & mutual respect as well as reducing antagonism & aggression,” it stated yesterday. Good to know.
Meanwhile, Twitter remains blocked in Iran.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal reported today that Iran's government is calling the Rosh Hashanah tweets a hoax. "President Hassan Rouhani has no tweeter [sic] account," according to one of his advisers. America's exercise in wishful thinking looks even sillier—and sadder—than it did a few hours ago. As the Journal notes, "the fact that the regime repudiated [the tweet] within 24 hours is evidence that Tehran remains hard-wired for resistance and extremism... It's worth remembering that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are central pillars of the Islamic Republic's founding ideology."
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.