By Tara Kangarlou and Jim Sciutto
From wishing Jews a Happy Rosh Hashanah to an historic phone call with President Barack Obama, Iran’s president is pursuing a new kind of outreach. One of his vice presidents compared it to Richard Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy, credited with opening relations between the United States and China more than 40 years ago.
In an exclusive interview with CNN, Mohammad-Ali Najafi, Iranian vice president and head of Iran’s richly funded Cultural Heritage and Tourism institution, said he believes such outreach could do the same for relations between the United States and Iran today.
“I adamantly believe in cultural diplomacy and believe the thing that could improve relations between (the) U.S. and Iran after the years and soften the harshness of this relationship is cultural diplomacy,” Najafi said.
Najafi, who reportedly planned to run for president and is considered part of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inner circle, invited all Americans to visit Iran and regarded tourism as a primary tool to create “long-lasting and effective” engagement between the two countries.
“It’s these people-to-people dialogues and people-to-people relations that can encourage even political officials to accelerate the development of diplomatic and political relations for solving the issues between the two countries,” he said.
Rouhani has proposed direct U.S.-Iran flights, which were suspended after the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979. U.S. officials, however, have offered no sign such change is on the table.
The Iranian president has created an international stir by sending messages, including the Rosh Hashanah greeting via Twitter, while at the same time, almost all social media websites, including Twitter, are blocked inside Iran. Asked about the sharp contradiction, Najafi hinted that a relaxation of those restrictions is imminent.
“Social media is actually a great tool that can be used to express beliefs and reveal the reality and truth,” said Najafi. “During the previous administration, social media and the Iranian’s presence on social media was considered to be illegal. But I think based on the policies of the new administration, there would certainly be changes made in those limitations. And God willing, those contradictions will be resolved,” he said.
Najafi said the burden now is on the United States to reciprocate Iran’s outreach, arguing that it has missed opportunities in the past, for instance, when President George W. Bush included Iran in an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea after 9/11.
This move, Najafi said, strengthened Iranians opposed to change.
“(This) led the hardliners to halt further movements inside Iran,” he said.
In domestic and foreign policy, the previous administration led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—who once denied the Holocaust—seems to be one that the new government of “prudence and hope” wants to distant itself from.
“Now it’s the time to say new things, say things that would improve the situation and remove limitations,” said Najafi in response to Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments prior to the "optimistic” meeting held last Thursday with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad-Javad Zarif.
In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes", Kerry said, "The United States is not going to lift the sanctions until it is clear that a very verifiable, accountable, transparent process is in place, whereby we know exactly what Iran is going be doing with its (nuclear) program.”
However, late Friday night Kerry tweeted from the State Department's twitter account saying, “Good first steps w/#Iran this wk. Positive meeting w/@JZarif last night. Historic POTUS and @HassanRouhani call today. #Progress-JK"
Due to a long history of tense relations between the two countries, Najafi acknowledged that “change has to come in a more cautious and gradual way,” but he said he’s still optimistic.
“I’m hopeful because I’m certain that the Iranian government has this will — and as far as the U.S. government — of course I can’t talk with similar certainty—but I feel there is similar will. And I think in this case the work can be done,” he said.