It was an unprecedented attempt by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to reach out directly to young Iranians over the heads of their leaders. But it backfired spectacularly when he casually claimed in an interview with BBC Persian television that clampdowns by Iran’s rulers extended to a ban on blue jeans.
Social media sites were flooded on Monday with Iranians ridiculing his remarks, which many said were patronising and offensive and showed how out of touch he was with life in Iran.
“I bet he thinks we ride horses instead of cars!” Mohamad Nezamadadi, a Tehran University student, scoffed.
The hawkish Israeli premier – who commands the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal – was also given a dressing down for expressing concern for ordinary Iranians while pressing for tighter sanctions against Tehran and threatening to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Many Iranians, in a so-called “jeans protest” against Mr Netanyahu, tweeted pictures of themselves sporting denim. One post showed a young boy in jeans whispering into the ear of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Another popular tweet, showing a picture of a shop in Tehran selling jeans, quipped: “Mr Netanyahu, here is a shop selling weapons of mass destruction.”
Some mocked Israel’s intelligence agencies, saying they were so busy tracking Iran’s nuclear programme – which Tehran insists is solely peaceful – that they failed to update Mr Netanyahu on fashion trends in Iran.
Others asked how Mr Netanyahu’s warnings about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions could be taken seriously if he did not even realise that jeans are as ubiquitous in Iran as they are in any other country.
In what Mr Netanyahu’s office billed as a landmark interview, he told the BBC’s Persian service late on Saturday: “I think if the Iranian people had freedom, they would wear jeans, listen to western music, and have free elections.”
While much western music is illegal in Iran, most Iranians have little difficulty in accessing whatever they want to listen to. Some yesterday tweeted pictures of themselves tuning in on iPhones and iPods – while wearing jeans.
The main thrust of Mr Netanyahu’s message – which was lost in the jeans brouhaha – was to get the Iranian public to oppose their country’s nuclear programme. “You, the Persians, will never get rid of this tyranny if it is armed with nuclear weapons,” Mr Netanyahu said. “For God’s sake,” he implored, “don’t let them have nuclear weapons.”
The Israeli premier has been left flailing by a well-choreographed charm offensive to the West launched by Iran’s popular and moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, which was capped by a historic phone call with US President Barack Obama.
Mr Netanyahu has branded Mr Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” while simultaneously insisting he has no real power anyway.
Iranians, he maintained the interview, are not governed by Mr Rouhani but by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who heads a cult “that is wild in its ambitions and its aggression”.
These assertions did little to endear the Israeli premier to the millions of Iranians who gave Mr Rouhani an unexpected landslide election victory over hardline candidates in June.