Are Rohani's Rosh Hashanah Blessings a Diplomatic Signal?

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Many world leaders extend Rosh Hashanah greetings to the Jewish people every year. President Barack Obama even makes a short video clip for the occasion with his own greetings. On Wednesday, an unusual and extraordinary greeting was sent to Jews around the world from none other than Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

Unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose reference to Jews consisted mainly of Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic rants, Rohani used his Twitter account to tweet, in English, best wishes for the new year to Iranian Jews in particular, and to Jews around the world in general.

“As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” wrote Rohani, attaching a photo of an Iranian Jew praying at a synagogue in Tehran.

A few hours later, he was joined in his well-wishing by the new Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Zarif had just opened a Twitter account, using his second tweet ever to extend his greetings to the Jewish people. "Happy Rosh Hashanah," he tweeted.

The Prime Minister’s Office has so far declined to comment on these greetings by senior Iranians.

Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that these Rosh Hashanah wishes are extraordinary for several reasons. “Iran has always maintained it differentiates between Judaism and Zionism, and that its policy is anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic. However, this is a definite expression of a change in terminology and atmosphere that defines the new Rohani era, after years of an Ahmadinejad-led discourse that was dominated by Holocaust denial," Zimmt said.

Zimmt adds that the fact that the greetings were extended to Jews around the world and not only in Iran is a further expression of Rohani’s attempt to signal a new era of moderation to the West. “There is no reason to expect that he will have an attitude towards Israel that differs from the official one taken by the Islamic Republic, but there is certainly a different approach than the one we were accustomed to in recent years." Zimmt said. “The bottom line is that there is no change in official policy towards Israel and Zionism, but this is yet another expression of a change in the rhetoric and in the atmosphere that the new regime wishes to project.”

Rohani’s twitter account is semi-official. It was set up during his election campaign and was operated by his campaign staff, which consisted mainly of young people. Since he took office, the account remained open, but it’s not clear who is actually running it.

Max Fisher of the Washington Post believes that Rohani is continuing to use the account unofficially in order to express opinions that do not necessarily concord with those of the conservatives in Iran, in a manner that allows him to state that these are not the official positions of the presidential palace. Indeed, Rohani’s spokesman told the Fars news agency on Wednesday that Rohani does not have a twitter account. On the other hand, he did not deny the content of the tweet.

The Rosh Hashanah messages from Iran spread like wildfire through dry grass in the social media, garnered numerous responses. For example, Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk tweeted Rouhani back: “This could be a good year if you stopped enriching uranium and started complying with UN Security Council resolutions.”

The American-Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg added a cynical tweet of his own: "Happy New Year to you. Now, could you ask your Supreme Leader to stop calling for the elimination of the Jewish state?" 

Rohani's tweet

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