Why it matters that Netanyahu doesn’t know that Iranians wear jeans

October 7, 2013

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an interview last week to the BBC's Persian-language station, which is beamed directly into Iran, in which he made a gaffe that ended up drawing quite a bit of criticism. "If the people of Iran were free, they could wear jeans, listen to Western music and have free elections," he said. The elections might not be so free, and some Western music is officially banned, if generally tolerated. But Iranians do wear jeans -- as a great many of them pointed out by posting photos of themselves in denim online, often with a message deriding the Israeli leader for his ignorance.

It's not exactly shocking that Iranians, inside the country and in the larger diaspora, would mock Netanyahu. This was an opportunity for Iranians to express their dislike of the Israeli leader as well as their own national pride, a significant force in any country but particularly in Iran. But there's more here than meets the eye, and the incident is a small but telling little flashpoint in the ongoing American-Israeli-Iranian dance over the future of Iran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu's comment touched on a common perception in Iran: that the country is mistreated and misunderstood by a bellicose and condescending West. Anything that entrenches that idea is not going to help with the ongoing efforts to find either a nuclear deal or a larger detente. One little incident is not going to dramatically shift the national mood in Iran, of course, but what Western leaders say and do over the next months and years of diplomacy could certainly help shape the conversation inside the country. Though Tehran and Washington are leading that effort, there's no denying that Israel will play a major role in the process. Netanyahu's comments are a reminder of that, and a sign of the sort of role he might play.

Netanyahu's error, as a factual point, was not a particularly significant one. Iran does have clothing restrictions, even if he overstated them. But the comment came as part of his larger appeal to the Iranian people, in which he seemed to suggest that they overthrow their government. "You, the Persians, will never get rid of this tyranny if it is armed with nuclear weapons," he said, alluding to the protests of 2009. Among Iran analysts, though, it's generally accepted that most Iranians within the country want to see their system reformed, not toppled, and that 2009 was a part of that. The mission of overthrowing the regime is a mostly Western one, though the Obama administration has moved away from it. It's also a goal that tends to rally Iranians around their government and against the West, not the other way around.

Even if Netanyahu were the sort of person who could compellingly speak directly to Iranians, and even if Iranians were ready to hear him out, the Israeli leader's message here may not have been the sort of language likely to bring the two sides together. That goes beyond jeans, although the flub was part of it: The Israeli leader seemed to portray Iran as a totalitarian prison of a country, run by a small band of hated tyrants. But as some have noted, this sounds more like North Korea than Iran. The Islamic Republic has some of the world's worst civil rights, but it is a far cry from Pyongyang's style of rule, and is not peopled with 78 million Iranians just waiting to be liberated.

The biggest obstacle to any nuclear deal or larger detente may ultimately come from the hard-liners within Tehran, up to and including the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Their largest objection is that the Westerners cannot be trusted because they're bent on the Islamic Republic's destruction, a fear that Netanyahu's framing of the matter doesn't help. Their biggest political weapon is Iranian nationalism tinged with anti-Western ideology; any time Iranians feel lectured by an Israeli leader, that sentiment risks ticking up a bit.

It's a telling little irony that, when Netanyahu criticized Iran's severe restriction of civil liberties, it led Iranians not to criticize their government but Israel's -- and to do it using the very social networks, such as Facebook, that are banned by Tehran. This was a relatively minor misstep in public diplomacy, but it's a worrying indication for Washington and Tehran of the sort of role that the Israeli leader sees himself playing in their burgeoning outreach.

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Max Fisher · October 7, 2013