Hassan Rouhani UN Speech: Why it Could Be a Big Chance For Jews in Iran
Last week, Moreh Sedgh (also referred to as Ciamak Moresadegh), an Iranian Parliament member, told the Associated Press that he would be accompanying President Rouhani this week at the UN General Assembly as a part of the delegation. Sedgh is the director of the Tehran Jewish community and a practicing doctor. He was elected in 2008 and is the only Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament.
In accordance with the Persian Constitution of 1906, the 290-seat Iranian parliament has five seats reserved for representatives of Iran’s religious minority: One for Jews, two for Christians, and two for Zoroastrians. Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel.
At the General Assembly, Rouhani will be making his first appearance on the international stage and his speech will be of utmost importance as he has stated several times that he wants to change Iran’s image to the world that was created under former President Ahmadinejad. Sedgh’s presence in the delegation will be significant in this regard, especially as he is one of the only two parliament members that will reportedly be accompanying the president to New York this week.
This comes after the infamous Twitter incident in September, where both Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted blessings for the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah. After the American Christine Pelosi tweeted that the congratulations would have been more appropriate had Iran not denied the holocaust — which former president Ahmadinejad had done while in office, Zarif responded by posting, "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year." Zarif had also told Tasnim news agency that "[country’s] Jewish countrymen are a recognised minority in Iran and have an active representative in the parliament. We were never against Jews. We oppose Zionists who are a small group, we do not allow the Zionists to represent Iran as an anti-Semitic country in their propaganda so they can cover up their crimes against Palestinian and Lebanese people."
Since his election, Rouhani has indicated several times that under his governance he hoped that Iran’s minority rights would be protected and that he hoped to change Iran’s negative image in the eyes of the world. So far, his administration seems to be following these promises. He has been much more keen to pursue talks with the West, for example, in order to take steps towards resolving the ongoing nuclear program issue. Like Ahmadinejad, he is still critical of Israel’s policies, although he has been much more cautious in and moderate while expressing these views.
Sedgh shares Rouhani’s view of minority rights in Iran. In a 2010 interview with Russia Today, Sedgh denied that anti-Semitism existed in Iran. "Jews are safe in Iran. That’s true. Nobody needs guards. There has never been a single instance of anti-Semitism in Iranian society. This phenomenon belongs to the European, Christian world. There is no anti-Semitic sentiment in Iran. We have no attacks on synagogues or cemeteries as happens in Paris. Just so you know, there are 15 synagogues in Tehran," he said.
Moreover, he is also known as a critic of Israeli policies. In May 2008, he told Reuters that Iran’s Jewish community would not mark Israel’s 60th anniversary. "We are in complete disagreement with the behavior of Israel," Sedgh told the news agency, adding that in Gaza, Israel displayed "anti-human behavior … They kill innocent people."
What does all of this mean for the future of the Iranian-Israeli relationship? Do they mean anything important at all? In 2009, then-President Ahmadinejad was also accompanied to the UNGA by the five minority representatives of the parliament. According to a Press TV news, he had heavily pressured the members of Parliament into joining his trip in order to signify Iran’s religious tolerance to the international community. However, this had not stopped him from denying the holocaust and pursuing an antagonizing approach to his relations with Israel.
With Rouhani’s continued critical approach in mind, Netanyahu continues to express his skepticism of him, doubting a change in Iranian attitude under his presidency. As talks with Obama develop about the Iranian nuclear program issue, Rouhani’s aspirations for Iran and Israel — as well as how much influence he actually could have on these matters — will be better observed.
Is Rouhani indeed a "wolf dressed in sheep’s costume" as Netanyahu has described? Only time will tell. But considering the current reality of Iranian-Israeli relations as quite sour because of Ahmadinejad, these indicators so far have set a relatively optimistic path for progress — for those who want to see it.