After Iranian Twitter Posts, Excitement Overcomes Nuance

In case you missed it, some Iranians wished some Jews a happy new year.

But you probably didn't miss it. The Rosh Hashanah greetings, sent from Twitter accounts said to be affiliated with Iran's president Hassan Rouhani and its foreign minister Javad Zarif, caused much excitement in the Western media, with The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR and many other news outlets covering the story. The exuberance increased when, after being challenged on Twitter about Iranian Holocaust denial, Zarif responded that Iran never denied the Holocaust, and that "the man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone."

How much excitement did the tweets cause? Consider that in three blog posts about the issue, Al Monitor's Laura Rozen described a "stunning Twitter exchange," a "stunning exchange of direct Twitter diplomacy" that was a "stunning contrast" with the previous government's rhetoric, and a "stunning exchange" that "set off stunned amazement."

In too many cases, though, enthusiasm came at the cost of thoughtful reporting. Rozen, for example, prominently highlighted Zarif's insinuation that the conclusion of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure as Iranian president amounted to the end of official Iranian Holocaust denial.

For readers to accurately assess the claim, they would need to know that Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who ranks well above Rouhani and Zarif in the country's hierarchy of power, refers to the Holocaust as a "myth." It would also be helpful to understand that Zarif himself had equivocated and evaded when asked whether he believes 6 million Jews were exterminated during the Second World War. (You can see that on video here.) But Rozen, in her three posts on the topic, gave no hint that Zarif's tweet about Holocaust denial was misleading, if not cynically so.

Nor did Rozen bother to let readers know that a senior advisor to the Iranian president denied Rouhani runs a Twitter account. Those seeking a nuanced understanding of the issue would have to take this denial into account, along with suggestions by other observers that account is run by those close to the president and should be considered "semi-official." But the excitement in Rozen's articles left little room for nuance.

On NPR, Melissa Block did mention the debate about the authenticity of the Twitter account associated with Rouhani. But she, too, referred to Zarif's suggestion that Iran now acknowledges the Holocaust without alerting listeners to Khamenei's views, or to serious questions about Zarif's own views.

In fact, she didn't mention Khamenei at all, an omission made all the more problematic by her incorrect reference to a "new, more moderate Iranian regime" and her guest's description of Rouhani and Zarif as "the new crowd in power." Of course, the regime in Iran has not changed; only the government has. And the "new crowd" is subordinate to Khamenei, which severely limits the amount of power they have.

The BBC similarly failed to mention Khamenei and Zarif's previous statements casting doubt on the Holocaust even though they reported that he had "distanced himself from the Holocaust denials of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Max Fisher of the Washington Post commendably updated his article as more information emerged about the provenance of the Rouhani Twitter account. But he also asserted that the tweet from the account "seemed to be offering a very small gesture of goodwill at least partially toward Israelis." This, Fisher said, is because "it's difficult to separate discussion of Jews in Iranian political discourse from discussion of Israel."

It actually isn't that difficult. Ahmadinejad, in the pursuit of plausible deniability, often relied on the talking point about being opposed to Zionists but not Jews. And Zarif, following up on his Rosh Hashanah tweet, echoed the former president, claiming, "We never were against Jews. We oppose Zionists who are a small group."

The most sober report may have come from Barak Ravid at Ha'aretz, who acknowledged the newsworthiness of the story but also kept any temptation toward giddiness at bay. He wrote,

Zarif's comments on the holocaust are interesting and important and are no doubt a change in the Iranian rhetoric concerning the holocaust That being said, his attempt to put the blame of Iranian Holocaust denial solely on Ahmadinejad is misleading.

In other words, the Iranian Twitter gambit is certainly newsworthy. But context, especially about headlines from a faraway and foreign land, is also newsworthy — and it's necessary for those seeking to sort through the various possible meanings of the Iranian Twitter PR campaign.

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