It’s much too early to tell, but there was some encouraging news out of Tehran this week in the form of a Tweet from Iran’s new president wishing Jews, and particularly the 25,000 living in his country, wishes for “a blessed Rosh Hashanah.”
Here’s what he said:
Hassan Rouhani @HassanRouhani
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
The message was notable if for no other reason that the past eight years under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been marked by virulent anti-Semitism, calls for erasing the State of Israel and a campaign of Holocaust denial.
This small gesture, if not from Rouhani personally but apparently his office or some aides, appears to signal a change not only in the new government’s approach to Jews and Israel but to reinforce the new leader’s declared goal of presenting a more moderate voice and face to the rest of the world. It is considered significant that Rouhani’s office has not bothered to disavow the Rosh Hashanah tweet.
Laura Rozen of al-Monitor said Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-born scholar who heads the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, told her, “Not even under the monarchy do we remember such a message.”
Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also tweeted Rosh Hashanah greetings, and had another encouraging messsage. Christine Pelosi, daughter of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, responded to his “Happy Rosh Hashanah,” that “the New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial,” Zarif tweeted back, “Iran never denied it. The man who did is now gone. happy new year.”
“There is no reason to expect that [Rouhani] 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.” Raz Zimmt, an Iran authority at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz’s Barak Ravid. “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.”
We should learn more about Rouhani’s intentions in two events scheduled for later this month about whether the change in Tehran is substantive or simply style. He is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 24, and three days later nuclear negotiations with the United States, Britain, US, France, Russia, China and Germany are to resume according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). No progress was made during the 10 rounds of talks under Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani announced this week that Foreign Minister Zarif will be in charge of nuclear negotiations, not the Supreme National Security Council, under the control of Supreme Leader Ayahtollah Khamenei, as in the past. This is seen as sign of greater flexibility.
Before those talks begin the Senate may vote on a package of toughened new sanctions on Iran approved last month by the House before leaving on an extended vacation. The administration is reluctant to impose those new measures while it looks for signs of whether the Rouhani government will be more forthcoming in negotiations.
Look for the hardliners, particularly conservatives on Capitol Hill and pro-Israel lobbyists, to dismiss any hint of moderation in Iran and try to ratchet up the pressure on the administration no matter what happens.
Don’t expect any drop in support for Hizbollah or Syria, although in the accusations that the Assad regime used poison gas to kill more than a thousand civilians, including hundreds of children, the Iranian government response was much more moderate that the Russian reaction. Rouhani has condemned the use of chemical weapons without denying that it was his own client was the culprit, while adding Iran still stands with Assad and will do “everything to prevent” an attack on Syria.