In his first-ever interview last week with the BBC Persian Service, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inadvertently elicited a combination of outrage and ridicule with an offhand comment about the aspirations of Iran's population. Responding to a question about the prospects for change under Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, Netanyahu dismissed Rouhani and the election that elevated him as incompatible with the true preferences of the Iranian people, if they could be freely expressed. He then added:
"I think if the Iranian people had their way they would be wearing blue jeans, they’d have western music, they’d have free elections, they’d be free to choose whoever they want and they wouldn’t pay this awful price they are paying economically with the sanctions, for a programme that their own regime says they don’t want."
The interview prompted an uproar among internet-savvy Iranians, who proceeded to blanket social media with denim-clad photos of themselves and their compatriots as evidence that jeans are, in fact, widely worn by Iranians already. This in turn drew somewhat smirking coverage from traditional publications, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Haaretz, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Reuters. The Twitter account associated with President Rouhani even commented approvingly on the jeans furor.
Even with government-enforced restrictions against immodest dress, Iranians value their sense of style, as Prime Minister Netanyahu now surely appreciates. And they are deeply sensitive — some may even say overly sensitive (a phrase deployed here with a touch of fear of the flames that may follow) — to the perception of a slight. The critiques have varied in their emphasis, with many suggesting that Netanyahu's persistent and vociferous warnings about an imminent Iranian nuclear weapons capability may be as inaccurate as his sartorial commentary.
I might be tempted to join in the merriment at Netanyahu's expense, but I think there is a serious lesson to be learned in this ruckus about the difficulties of conducting public diplomacy in the context of an adversarial relationship — difficulties that are compounded by the absence of direct contact between states such as Iran, Israel and the United States. Crafting effective messages and communicating them to a country with which we have only the most superficial understanding is an inherently risky business.
The jabs may be aimed at Netanyahu right now, but the risks of public diplomacy in this uncertain new era for the United States and Iran are hardly limited to jokes about jeans. In such an environment, the possibilities for showcasing gaffes, missteps, and the idiosyncrasies of all our individual leaders are infinite, and official anxieties about the prospects for public discourse to undermine the delicate work of traditional diplomacy act as a significant barrier to more free-wheeling public engagement.
This is precisely why so few American officials have sought interviews with or appearances in Iranian-based media over the years, and why it took years for the U.S. bureaucracy to endorse the establishment of a Persian language spokesman (the inimitable Alan Eyre, seen here in one of his own BBC Persian interviews) in 2011. And even after a protracted internal struggle to win approval for media engagement, American public diplomacy toward Tehran confronts even more daunting obstacles — the boisterous but still carefully monitored Iranian media environment. Fears of official recriminations meant that Eyre's first interview with an Iranian newspaper was only published a few weeks ago (his prior interviews with Iranian news agencies were quickly removed from their websites.)
Still, despite the limitations, Washington has long placed a great emphasis on public diplomacy toward Tehran, with decidedly mixed results. President George W. Bush sought to use public messaging to delegitimize the Iranian government, via rhetoric that was heavy on epithets aimed at the regime such as the infamous 2002 denunciation of Iran as part of an 'Axis of Evil.' Unfortunately for Washington, this approach backfired; reformists attribute the hardening of Tehran's domestic politics and posture toward the United States to Bush's hostile verbiage. And in 2005, Iranian officials as well as critics of the regime claimed Bush's criticism of the electoral system wound up boosting turnout for a ballot that produced Ahmadinejad's first presidential victory.
By contrast, President Barack Obama won plaudits for his personal broadcast of Noruzt greetings aimed at Iranians in March 2009; however, it is difficult to see what if any positive impact his remarks had among those Iranians who were not predisposed to welcome engagement — in other words, Iran's real decision-makers, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the administration's decision to restrain its rhetoric in the face of the mass protests that were sparked by Ahmadinejad's contested 2009 reelection victory remains a sore point among some Iranian activists and critics.
For all the American stumbles, eight years of Ahmadinejad's embarrassing provocations taught Iranians all too well the public relations blowback from a controversial leader. While Rouhani's early moves have been far more deftly orchestrated, Tehran still faces its own fine line of potential complications in its newly invigorated efforts to shape external opinion in a more favorable fashion. As I wrote few weeks ago, to live by the tweet is to die by the tweet, and the extensive use of social media by Rouhani and several of his cabinet officials only underscores their hypocrisy in the face of Tehran's continuing restrictions on such access by their own citizenry. The Iranian president's excruciating non-answer to the first round of American media questions about the Holocaust illustrates the constraints on the charm offensive posed by the residual significance of the theocratic ideology.
In the end, I can't fault Netanyahu for failing to realize that jeans are a common fashion statement in Iran, or that most Iranians find ways to access just about any form of media or art imaginable. Dress and artistic expression have been hotly contested in post-revolutionary Iran, and the Israeli prime minister's options for acquiring a first-hand appreciation of Iran's internal circumstances are understandably limited. His real blunder was not so much his words, but his tone, which was smug and hectoring and so full of contempt for Iran's leaders that it predictably provoked Iranian nationalism, much as the Bush rhetoric did a decade ago. And yet a country still struggling to set aside a weekly practice of mass appeals for death to its adversaries might want to recall that patriotic umbrage is hardly limited to Iranians.