Iran's Foreign Minister is 1st of the nation's officials to have verified Twitter account

TEHERAN (AFP) - Mr Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's media-savvy Foreign Minister, has become the first Iranian official to have a verified account on Twitter, although no one inside the country can legally read his tweets.

In fact technically it is illegal for Mr Zarif to have a Twitter account at all.

But since President Hassan Rohani, a reputed moderate, took office in August, the authorities appear to be showing a greater tolerance on social, cultural and media issues.

Using the newly activated account @JZarif, the Foreign Minister caused a diplomatic shockwave on Sept 5 when he wished Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and also stated that Iran did not deny the Holocaust.

On Friday morning, the account, where Mr Zarif tweets in English to nearly 19,000 followers, was denoted by a blue check mark - an official Twitter logo for verified accounts.

The United States-educated diplomat also regularly updates his Facebook page (facebook.com/jzarif) where he posts in Farsi, and sometimes interacts with some of his more than 184,000 fans.

But Mr Zarif grabbed global media attention - as well as criticism from hardliners at home - when he engaged on Sept 5 in a conversation with Ms Christine Pelosi, the daughter of former speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

The move was unprecedented not only because Iran and the US have no diplomatic relations but also because of the contents of the message.

In the exchange which arose from his new year greeting, Iran's top diplomat condemned the World War II Nazi massacre of the Jews after Ms Pelosi asked for clarification of the Islamic republic's official position on the Holocaust.

Mr Zarif replied: "Iran never denied it (the Holocaust). The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."

He was referring to hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose turbulent eight years in office were marked by anti-Israeli diatribes and denial of the Holocaust, leading to Iran being increasingly isolated in the international community.

However Mr Zarif's tweets can only be read inside Iran by people who have illegal VPN software that get past a systematic filtering mechanism set up by the authorities.

Under the system, Iran blocks access to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and numerous other sites, including blogs and pornographic hubs, as it tries to stop its population from surfing content the authorities see as undermining the Islamic regime, or as being immoral.

Despite the systematic ban however, several pages on social networking sites are believed to be operated by Iranian officials, including a Facebook page (facebook.com/www.Khamenei.ir) and a twitter account, @khamenei-ir, dedicated to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's ultimate authority.

Mr Rohani has on a number of occasions voiced criticism over the Islamic state interfering in the private lives of citizens, hitting out at a campaign against forbidden but widely used satellite dishes as well as calling the filtering of Internet websites a senseless act.

It is however unclear whether any immediate change to Internet censorship is on the horizon.

Since Mr Rohani took office, the number of pages and accounts attributed to officials has been on the rise.

Among them is the twitter account @HassanRouhani, widely believed to be run by the presidency office, which also wished Jews a happy new year on Sept 5.

However, the President's media affairs adviser Mohammad Reza Sadeq has denied that the President has any official association with the account, stressing: "Hassan Rohani does not have a twitter account."

"Supporters and fans of Mr Rohani were active in the cyberspace... and on pages they opened in his name," Mr Sadeq told the Fars news agency on Sept 5.

"Such activities are regular in the course of an election. It is possible that some of these pages are still active," he added.

In another case, a Facebook page in the name of Iran's first-ever female foreign ministry spokesman Marzieh Afkham was going viral before she officially denied being on the popular social networking site.