From Table Tennis to Twitter

Logos for the microblogging site Twitter, displayed on the internet on September 13, 2013 in London, England (Mary Turner/Getty Images) Logos for the microblogging site Twitter, displayed on the Internet on September 13, 2013 in London, England (Mary Turner/Getty Images)

Logos for the microblogging site Twitter, displayed on the Internet on September 13, 2013 in London, England (Mary Turner/Getty Images)

The story began on the Iranian foreign minister's Twitter feed. The minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, issued his congratulations on the turning of Jewish new year on September 5, tweeting "Happy Rosh Hashana!"

Christine Pelosi—the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Congresswoman from California and former speaker of the United States House of Representatives—replied to Zarif's tweet: “Thanks. The new year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran Holocaust denial.”

Zarif promptly replied: "Thanks, Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”

Zarif’s Rosh Hashana message was obviously a novel and important initiative. Perhaps we are now in an era where Twitter diplomacy works better than the "ping pong diplomacy" of the last century, the exchange of table tennis players between the United States and China in the early 1970s. The event marked a thaw in US–China relations that paved the way for a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon. During the week of June 9, 2008, a three-day commemoration of ping pong diplomacy was held at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. Original members of both the Chinese and American teams from 1971 were present and competed again.

But Twitter is absolutely different, because it is a channel where two or more people can directly engage in a discussion and explain their ideas. There is no need for an embassy to prepare a report, or a translator to translate the text. It is the easiest way it exchange views, and its accessibility for everyone is another important feature of Twitter. It is indeed a revolution in communication.

Zarif spoke with an Iranian news website after his tweet, and insisted on the rightness of his position, though he distinguished between Judaism and Zionism. In the interview, he confirmed sending the Rosh Hashanah greeting on Twitter and commented on what he thought about the Holocaust. Zarif posted quotes from his interview (in Persian) on his Facebook page, which received over 11,000 'likes.' "We never were against Jews. We oppose Zionists, who are a minority," the foreign minister was quoted as saying. "We have condemned the killing of Jews by Nazis as we condemn the killing and crackdown on Palestinians by Zionists," he said.

There were three important reactions to Zarif’s Twitter diplomacy.

First, Kayhan, the state-owned newspaper of record in Iran, whose editor-in-chief is directly appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, and is the most famous extremist paper in Iran, published an editorial against Zarif’s exchange of tweets with Pelosi on September 8, 2013. The title of Kayhan's article was "A man who has gone, but. . .?"

Hossein Shariatmadari, Kayhan's director and the author of the article, made several criticisms. He pointed out that Zarif’s tweet was strange and unexpected, and said it was impolite because Zarif was disrespectful to Ahmadinejad by calling him "the man" who has "gone." He also insisted that the Holocaust is still a myth, and said Ahmadinejad had supported a very important theory. He also said Zarif was hypocritical, as when discussing his plans as the foreign minister in the parliament, Zarif had insisted that he would uphold Imam Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei’s attitudes, but now he has published other ideas. Finally, Kayhan believed there was a real Holocaust, but it was masterminded by the Jews to kill and burn their enemies. Another extremist website in Iran republished Kayhan’s article almost entirely, and condemned Zarif for his tweet.

Second, Zarif’s tweet was criticized in Israel as well. The superstar of extremism in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected Zarif’s Rosh Hashana Twitter greeting. Haaretz narrated the story:

“The international community should not be deceived by Iran’s Rosh Hashana greeting and should focus instead on Tehran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned on September 7, in response to a surprise holiday Twitter blessing from Israel’s arch enemy."

“I am not impressed by the blessings uttered by a regime that just last week threatened to destroy the state of Israel,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

It is a strange and illogical move to reject a greeting. This, yet again, proves why Ahmadinejad was a unique and beloved figure for the Israeli authorities. Some Israelis would rather have an extremist government rule in Iran. In the 2009 presidential election in Iran, Israel blatantly supported Ahmadinejad, not Mir-Hossein Mousavi. For instance, Ephraim Inbar—the director of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar Iian University—said back then: "If we have Ahmadinejad, we know where we stand. If we have Mousavi we have a serpent with a nice image." When we consider the extremist point of view of some Israelis, we can see why Rouhani and Zarif are more considered more dangerous for Israel in some quarters.

Third and finally, I think in Iran and other places, those who listen to the voice of wisdom and peace were pleased by Zarif's tweets. As a matter of fact, all practicing Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals are living on one planet. We should respect each other. We should send greetings messages to each other. Then, perhaps, the world will become a better place to live.

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