What to make of the revelation that Hassan Rouhani doesn’t write his own tweets or Facebook updates? If he had been a Western leader, it would matter very little: after all, you have to be exceptionally credulous to believe President Barack Obama or Prime Minister David Cameron write all their own social-media messages. It’s generally expected and accepted that they have people to do that for them.
But Rouhani is different. To many in the West (and not a few Iranians) the Twitter account @HassanRouhani has been a big part of the Iranian President’s appeal. It made him seem in touch with the modern world, a quality not associated with Iran’s recent leaders. It also made him seem simpatico with the aspirations of young Iranians. (The account has over 170,000 followers.)
Think back to the tweet last year from @HassanRouhani wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah, and the frisson of excitement it sent around the world. The impression it gave was that this new Iranian leader was a very different quantity than his predecessor, who had suggested Israel should be annihilated and who questioned whether the Holocaust had taken place. Other tweets from the same account suggested that Rouhani favored more freedoms for Iran’s women, another departure from the norm.
Those who believed those messages came directly from the man had their bubble burst on Thursday. During a meeting with a small group of journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Rouhani responded to a direct question with the confession that he doesn’t write the pithy messages on the social-media accounts associated with him: those are written by “friends,” he said.
The meeting was meant to be off the record, but when asked by journalists if he would allow that confession to be placed on the record, Rouhani readily agreed. (This was tweeted immediately by some of us in the room … I’m reasonably sure none of us have “friends” to do it for us!)
So what? The assembled journalists never got a chance to ask the President if he had wished Jewish people a happy new year, or whether he thought Iran’s women should have greater freedoms. But he didn’t suggest that his opinions diverge from those of the “friends” who write his tweets.
Here’s where this leaves us: we can all now stop paying attention to @HassanRouhani, and instead focus on Hassan Rouhani. Goodness knows there are plenty of ways in the real world to measure his performance as President. For the West, the most immediate test is in his ability to keep Tehran’s end of the bargain in the six-month freeze of its nuclear program that went into effect earlier this week. There’s also his readiness to make a long-term deal that reassured the world his country will not seek nuclear weapons. For Iranians, his credentials as a reformer will be judged by his ability to deliver on the promises he made during the election campaign last year. Will he, for instance, make it possible for them to have Twitter and Facebook accounts too?
At his formal address in Switzerland this week, Rouhani said most of the right things: Iran would honor the six-month freeze and sincerely seek a permanent agreement with the six world powers, he said. It would seek a peaceful resolution to the civil war in Syria. He also promised economic and political reforms that would help to unleash the potential of Iran’s youth.
He said these things, not his “friends.” Time now for the real Rouhani to please stand up.
MORE: Rouhani’s Real Test