Amid nuke debates, Iranian president says 'L’shanah tovah!'

Hassan Rouhani’s greeting for the Jewish New Year points to the new complexities of US, Iranian, and Israeli relations in a post-treaty world.

Ebrahim Noroozi/ AP
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani prepares to speak at a press conference in Tehran as a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looks on. The difference between the two men's views on a nuclear deal with the US – Rouhani's cautious enthusiasm, versus Khamenei's grudging acceptance – indicate how complicated an issue it remains both domestically and internationally.

As Jewish communities worldwide prepared to welcome the New Year of their religious calendar, two presidents offered salutations on social media: Barack Obama of the United States and Hassan Rouhani of Iran.

The American President’s greeting was no surprise; the White House frequently extends a message on Jewish holidays. 

Israelis, however, were left “bewildered” by what to make of Rouhani’s tweet, posted early Monday, which reads “May our shared Abrahamic roots deepen respect and bring peace and mutual understanding. L’Shanah Tovah.”

The Iranian government walks a delicate line, protesting that it is not anti-Semitic but only anti-Zionist, refusing to acknowledge the State of Israel. For many Jews, however, that reassurance falls on deaf ears, given the country’s long history of violent rhetoric – and actions – toward Jews, from supporting Hamas and Hezbollah to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated claims that the Holocaust was “a myth.”

The year, Rosh Hashanah comes at a particularly fragile time for relations between the United States, Iran, and Israel, as Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani come close to pushing through a historic deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program in return for a reduction in international sanctions, which have stymied the country’s economy for years.

The agreement was bitterly opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in an unprecedented move, delivered his argument to Congress himself, and some 70 percent of Israelis. Obama and Rouhani also faced uphill battles to pass the deal; on August 22, a conservative Iranian commission began to review the treaty, emboldening dubious citizens to voice their own concerns again

Although many Iranians welcome the promise of an improved economy, the idea of making peace with “The Great Satan,” as Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was wont to call the United States, does not come easily. Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has continued to echo his predecessor, reassuring conservatives that cooperation with Americans would not extend beyond the nuclear deal, and tweeting his own threat, not greeting, to Israel last week: “You will not see next 25 years.” 

Even the relatively conciliatory Rouhani’s message had its limits. The tweet, written in English, was not posted on the Farsi language account most Iranians would see. He is believed to have tweeted a similar greeting in 2013, but presidential advisors denied he had posted it.

Both Iranian and American leaders are contending with strong, sharply diverging views of the deal at home, but also engaged in a sometimes awkward dance with each other, and Netanyahu, as they feel out the contours of their countries’ relationships in a post-deal world: patching up differences and forming partnerships, yet eyeing each other with skepticism – some of it stubborn, and some of it forged anew.  

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