TEHRAN – Iran’s new President Hassan Rowhani is waging an international public relations campaign to improve the Islamic republic’s image, with officials condemning the Holocaust and even wishing Jews a happy new year.
The charm offensive is aimed at countering years of adverse coverage sparked by Iran’s atomic ambitions and incendiary comments by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Rowhani succeeded on August 4.
In his first remarks since Rowhani tasked his ministry on Thursday with taking over Iran’s sensitive nuclear talks with world powers, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran wants to allay concerns over its atomic programme.
“Allaying international concerns is in our interest because atomic weapons do not form part of the Islamic republic’s policies,” Zarif said on Friday.
“Consequently, our interest is to remove any ambiguity regarding our country’s nuclear programme,” he said after a telephone conversation with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
She is chief negotiator for the P5+1 — the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany — who have been pressing Iran to stop enriching uranium.
Uranium enrichment, which Iran insists is purely for peaceful purposes, can lead in more refined form to the production of the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.
Iran says that its nuclear ambitions are for entirely peaceful purposes, despite fears in Israel and among world powers that its uranium enrichment masks a covert weapons drive.
Zarif, a US-educated moderate and former ambassador to the United Nations, would seem to be the spearhead of Tehran’s new toned down approach.
He said on Facebook this week that Tehran condemns the World War II Nazi massacre of the Jews, in stark contract to Holocaust denials by Ahmadinejad.
“We condemn the massacre of Jews by the Nazis, and we condemn the massacre of Palestinians by the Zionists,” he wrote, publishing the text of an interview he gave to the Tasnim news agency.
In the interview, he was also asked whether he wished Jews “Happy Rosh Hashanah” (new year), and had had an exchange about the Holocaust on Twitter.
“I replied to a question from a person who appeared to be the daughter of the ex-speaker of the US House of Representatives,” Nancy Pelosi, Zarif wrote.
On his recently activated Twitter account, he wrote in English “Happy Rosh Hashanah,” and Christine Pelosi replied, thanking him.
“Thanks. The new year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir,” she wrote.
Zarif replied: “Iran never denied it (the Holocaust). The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”
Tehran does not recognize Israel, and Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office were filled with anti-Israel diatribes.
Separately — and significantly — the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, himself a former foreign minister, said Tehran could agree to snap International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its facilities.
Salehi said he understood international concerns, and that Iran was ready to allay them “using every treaty, regulation and mechanism at the international level”.
Concretely, he told state news agency IRNA Iran could even accept the so-called “additional protocol” of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Tehran is a signatory, which allows unannounced inspections.
Addressing world powers, he said that if that was what they desired, they should “recognize all of our rights in the nuclear field” laid out by the treaty and IAEA rules.
Tehran applied the protocol from 2003, when Rowhani himself was chief negotiator, but stopped doing so after Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.
The country’s new approach to international diplomacy appears aimed at reversing Iran’s pariah image.
This has resulted in it being slapped by tough US and EU international sanctions, especially on its petroleum and banking sectors, that have strangled the economy.
Oil revenues have halved because of the sanctions, causing the value of the rial to plunge and inflation to soar to above 40 percent.