While Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif believes Iran does not jail people for their opinions, many disagree with his assessment.
Zarif was asked during a late April appearance on a U.S. news program about the detention of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been in jail in Tehran for the past nine months on security charges, including espionage.
"We do not jail people for their opinions," Zarif told host Charlie Rose, before adding that the government has a plan to improve the situation of human rights but that "people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist."
Former political prisoners and others were quick to take to social media to dismiss Zarif's claim as a "lie," pointing out that dozens of political prisoners -- including journalists, bloggers, and political activists -- are languishing in Iranian prisons.
Among them is London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was jailed in Iran and put on trial amid the state's brutal crackdown on the protests that followed the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Journalist Bahman Ahmadi Amouei, also jailed in the 2009 crackdown, challenged Zarif's claim in a letter widely shared on Facebook.
Speaking as "a journalist who was jailed because of his opinions and articles written in the country's newspapers," Amouei left no room for doubt that he suffered in prison as a result.
"I was interrogated and subjected to mental and physical torture," he wrote, adding that, "I testify that Rohani's government and his foreign minister are lying about this issue."
Some likened the Iranian foreign minister to Pinocchio by circulating a photoshopped image of him with a long wooden nose.
Many posted comments on Zarif's Facebook page while expressing their frustration over the claim made by a foreign minister who enjoys popular support over his handling of sensitive nuclear negotiations with world powers.
"We didn't expect to hear a lie from you," wrote one man before asking: "What is the crime of our most noble jailed journalists and political activists?"
Another user scolded Zarif. "By saying that, 'We don't jail people for their opinions,' you turn the hope of many Iranians who've become slightly hopeful over the presence of truthful and reasonable politicians in the country into despair," the user wrote.
Some sent a reminder to Zarif of the existence of activists and intellectuals sent to jail for their views or activism by posting their names on his Facebook page.
Others made comparisons between Zarif and former President Ahmadinejad, who was known for making controversial and untrue claims.
Well-known Internet activist Vahid Online posted a video on Twitter of Ahmadinejad claiming during a 2007 visit to New York that there were no homosexuals in Iran.
Zarif's admirers appeared undisturbed by his claim on PBS's Charlie Rose show, advising people to tone down their criticism. Some said the criticism was unwelcome because it could hurt the Iranian government's negotiations over its nuclear capabilities.
Exiled cartoonist Mana Neyestani weighed in with a cartoon that reflected on the different reactions to "lies" by Ahmadinejad to those of Zarif.
"Several years ago," reads the caption above Ahmadinejad, pictured with a wooden nose, while three individuals are seen holding signs that say: "The Liar Has Been Exposed."
Zarif is pictured underneath, also with a wooden nose, while three individuals hold signs that say: "The Government Is Negotiating. Do Not Disturb."
In a May 1 post on Facebook, Zarif acknowledged the criticism while claiming that he has always supported "freedom and criticism."
Iran's top diplomat then added that, in his view, any criticism in a "healthy society" should follow two rules: It should be fair and respect "national interests."
Many of Iran's political prisoners, including journalists and bloggers, are sent to jail on charges of harming Iran's national security.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari