TEHRAN — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel tried to take his campaign against the Iranian leadership to Iran’s young population last week, saying that if they were truly free, they would be able to wear jeans, listen to Western music and participate in free elections.
The problem is that Iranians do wear jeans and manage to listen to whatever music they want to listen to, just like people almost anywhere, except maybe in North Korea.
That is to say, Mr. Netanyahu’s effort at outreach backfired, as Twitter lit up Sunday with retorts.
“Netanyahu, here are my #Jeans and #Western music,” wrote a user named Sallar, posting a picture of his jeans and his iPad showing a pop album cover, and adding an insult to the prime minister’s intelligence.
A user with the handle mohhzg wrote, “Netanyahu, I’m wearing jeans like many old & young people in #Iran.”
Mr. Netanyahu made his faux pas — at least when it comes to Iranian fashion — in an interview Thursday with the BBC Persian channel, despised by the Iranian leadership because it allows the government’s adversaries direct access to the public.
“If the people of Iran were free, they could wear jeans, listen to Western music and have free elections,” he said, in an apparent effort to get the Iranian public to oppose the nation’s nuclear program.
The logic appeared to be this: The Iranian government would be invincible with a nuclear weapon, and with that, the public would have no chance to join the modern world.
“You, the Persians, will never get rid of this tyranny if it is armed with nuclear weapons,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “For God’s sake, don’t let them have nuclear weapons.”
He also referred to the 2009 antigovernment protests, in which dozens were killed after they took to the streets to dispute the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He singled out Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman who was fatally shot by unknown assailants during the street protests. Her killing, captured on video, turned her into a symbol of young, modern Iranians taking a stand against their leaders. “I saw her choke in her own blood,” Mr. Netanyahu said in the interview, which was dubbed into Persian.
No one disputed the horror of Ms. Agha-Soltan’s death. But many did note she had been wearing jeans.
“Netanyahu saw Neda die, but didn’t notice she wore jeans,” said a Twitter user with the handle Mohammadmojiran, who said he was a Web developer from Tehran.
While Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks were inaccurate, he was not completely off base. In the early years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, jeans were regarded as a despicable symbol of the United States. Nowadays, though, denim trousers are as ubiquitous here as they are elsewhere. And while the only Western music the state broadcaster plays is electronic dance music during sports programs, many restaurants, shops and other public places in the capital play a variety, including lounge and British pop music.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has been saying he thinks Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” told BBC Persian that Iranians “deserved better.”
“He represents a desire for change, but he wasn’t elected in free and open elections,” he said of Mr. Rouhani, one of eight preapproved candidates in the June elections.
But his political message was largely overshadowed by what many here saw as his dated, and condescending, view of Iranians.
“What he says is real nonsense — we dress like Europeans here and we listen to Western music, too,” said Sajad, 31, a student. “We even make Western-style music here. That’s an underground scene, but still.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to the criticism, but pointed to what it called positive feedback on Facebook and Twitter. It provided translated comments, but no links.
In one, an Iranian who called himself Irani Aryai said: “Well done, Mr. Netanyahu, for expressing what is in the hearts of the Iranian people. Well done, the great Israeli people, with the hope for the day when both people can live together in peace.”
Jodi Rudoren contributed reporting from Jerusalem – for NYTimes