Happy Rosh Hashana Messages From Iran Ignite Twitter

Melissa Block speaks with foreign policy analyst, author and journalist Robin Wright about Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's Rosh Hashana tweet, and how it's a signal of changes to come in the country.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

These three words have ignited an explosion in the Twitterverse: "Happy Rosh Hashana." What's so provocative about that message expressing good wishes for the Jewish New Year is who, apparently, posted it. It appeared yesterday on the Twitter feed attributed to the new foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

There are lots of questions about what this means, and about the shift in tone we're seeing under the new, more moderate Iranian regime. To talk about that, I'm joined by journalist and foreign policy analyst Robin Wright, who's been covering Iran for 40 years. Robin, welcome to the program.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: And first of all, do we know that @JZarif is, in fact, the Twitter feed of the Iranian foreign minister?

WRIGHT: We do. I know because I asked him myself.

BLOCK: And when you say you asked him yourself, how did you ask him?

WRIGHT: I asked him by email. I've known him for about a quarter century.

BLOCK: Well, in response to this Happy Rosh Hashana Twitter message, that got a response from someone on Twitter, who turns out to be Nancy Pelosi's daughter. She messaged the foreign minister the new year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial. Robin, talk about what he responded.

WRIGHT: Well, Zarif responded, Iran never denied it. The man who did is now gone. Happy New Year. And the man, of course, he's referring to is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who created enormous controversy around the world when he denied the Holocaust.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the background of the new foreign minister. He's a seasoned diplomat. He was Iran's ambassador to the U.N. for many years, and he went to university in the United States, has very close ties with this country.

WRIGHT: Yes. He was an undergraduate at New York University, and then he went to the University of Denver to do his graduate work. He spent a good bit of his life then working at the Iranian mission at the United Nations where he was ultimately the ambassador until 2007. And so he has a really strong understanding of this country and of the West.

BLOCK: Well, what has Foreign Minister Zarif been saying about his approach to the United States and to nuclear negotiations, which, it's now been confirmed, that he will be handling for Iran?

WRIGHT: Well, President Rouhani has actually been more vocal when it comes to dealing with the outside world. He's now been on both Facebook and Twitter since the presidential campaign. And it's interesting because both of these websites are technically banned through Iranian servers. And President Rouhani has come out and talked about looking forward to engagement with the international community. And today, he announced that for the first time the foreign ministry will take the lead on negotiations, which means Javad Zarif will head the team. And he said that Iran looked forward to constructive interaction with the outside world. So the atmospherics are changing even if the issues are not going to get any easier.

BLOCK: Help us understand something here, Robin. You mentioned a Twitter feed from the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani. The official Fars News Agency has said that the president has no Twitter account, that maybe its fans or supporters running Web pages in his name, but this is not from him.

WRIGHT: Well, the Fars News Agency said the president had no official presidential Twitter account. But it's clear that this comes from Rouhani's office, from Rouhani's thinking. I've gone through - as the website I run, the iranprimer.com - to ask in the early stages which of the many accounts in his names were real. And I was told there were two: one in English and one in Farsi. And the one we've been following since the spring has been carrying the kind of interesting messages about outreach to the outside world and even some statements over the past week about condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

BLOCK: What do you think this signifies, the use of social media by the top leaders now of the Iranian regime?

WRIGHT: I think it shows that the new crowd in power is not afraid of engagement. And it's striking to me how much has actually changed in the one month that President Rouhani has been in office. There is a change in tone, an outreach and a willingness to communicate in a public forum.

BLOCK: Robin Wright is a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, up here in Washington. Robin, thanks so much.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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