Iran, the U.S., and Online Diplomacy
Saranaz Barforoush (University of Maryland)
On the morning of November 4, 1979 a group of Iranian students stormed the gates of the American Embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two of the embassy’s personnel hostage. After 444 days, the American hostages were freed, but the United States and Iran ended all diplomatic relations.
The repercussions of those years have been significant not just for the two countries, but also for their citizens. Since the takeover of the embassy, for example, Iranians seeking a visa for travel to the United States have had to apply through American embassies in nearby countries such as the UAE, Turkey, Cyprus, etc.
For thirty-two years little changed for Iranians wanting greater access to and knowledge about the United States. Then in 2011 the State Department announced a new policy based on President Obama’s 2011 Nowruz pledge to support Iranians and “build new avenues for engagement with the Iranian youth.” Iranians holding F, J, and M visas who were not studying or researching sensitive or technical subjects would be eligible for multiple-entry visas to the United States. A few months later, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would launch a virtual embassy for Iranians. In an interview with a popular Iranian television show called Parazit Clinton stated: “My goal in speaking with you today is to clearly communicate to the people of Iran, particularly the very large population of young people, that the U.S. has no argument with you.” Two years later, in December 2011, the “virtual” American embassy officially launched. A welcome appeared on the ‘ABOUT US’ page: “This place is for you, the Iranian People.”
The Obama administration felt politically empowered to differentiate between Iranians and their government because of the Iranian grassroots activism of the Green Movement in 2009. At home, the Movement did not achieve political success — Iranian President Ahmadinejad was sworn in after the disputed elections and authorities placed the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, under house arrest. However, because of the scenes transmitted via social media of young men and woman marching the streets of Tehran and other major cities demanding the recount of their votes and other democratic rights, many Americans and Europeans began to see openings to engage with the public — via digital media.
Today most of the virtual U.S. embassy website mirrors that of brick-and-mortar American embassies.
Yet the space for Iranians does include some unique features for users — most intriguingly links to USAdarFarsi, the Farsi language social media divisions of the State Department. Via those links, which connect to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other State Department social media channels, Iranian users can access information about the United States and its policies towards Iran.
The State Department’s Twitter page for Iranians — 0 — has attracted 7.2 million followers and explicitly holds out the prospect of engagement between Americans and Iranians. The Farsi “motto” at the top of the page reads: “We tweet in Farsi, and want to join in your discussions.” Most of the Tweets relate to US-Iran policy issues, current events of interest to Iran and the United States, and educational videos about the English language.
More two-way dialogue occurs on the State Department’s Facebook page for Iranians in the comments section.
While the topics posted about are similar to those on the Farsi Twitter page, and many of the comments are (as you’d expect on Facebook) darkly comical, at times real conversations do emerge. For example, in October 2014, the State Department posted an image of Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov walking in the U.S. Embassy in France. That image triggered many Farsi speaking users to speak out on the site. “Hopefully, someday Iran and the U.S. foreign minsters will walk together like this,” wrote one, and another wrote: “The sanctions are pressuring the people of Iran, if you want us to accept you remove the sanctions.”
Of all the social media sites aimed at Iranians, the State Department’s Farsi YouTube channel is the most substantive. For example, a popular video series called “Ask Alan” features the Persian language spokesperson Alan Eyre responding to questions posed by Iranians. This channel too is explicitly attempting to create connections between individual Americans and Iranians. “Ask Alan,” notes the State Department’s release on the program, is a “new effort to engage with the Iranian people through our social media brand, USAdarFarsi.” Iranians who pose questions, usually via Tweets or via USAdarFarsi Facebook posts, ask about U.S. sanctions, American politics in the Middle East, and visa issues. Alan Eyre reads each selected question and then explains American policy. A question from Mohammad, in the eastern city of Mashhad read by Allen in 2011, for example, asked: “Is there any kind of committee within the U.S. government that monitors the effect of U.S. sanctions against Iran?” Eyre replied: “Honestly there is no committee — but we understand how affected the Iranian people are by the sanctions.” Eyre continued, and expressed the regrets of the American government for the impact of sanctions on civilians, but he stated that the U.S. government sees “no other choice in dealing with the Iranian government.”
The common message of the State Department virtual embassy and social media websites is that Americans and Iranians need to talk directly to each other, by digital means if no other way is possible. To some extent, the sites have given the State Department a new platform for engagement. Yet most of the comments on the USAdarFarsi sites suggest that the Iranians who are on the pages are either Iranians who live outside of Iran, or are rather privileged Iranians inside the country — those who have access not only to the Internet but to anti-filtering software that allows them to gain access to these websites.
The goal of “civic media” is to “empower the public to engage within and beyond the people, places, and problems of their community.” Most everyday Iranians, those who only have access to the sites approved by their government, still blame the United States for the impact of sanctions in Iran. And most Americans — those who don’t speak Farsi — cannot engage on the USAdarFarsi sites. For all its innovation, a virtual embassy cannot make up for face-to-face or person-to-person interactions. Civic media can only stretch so far between enemy countries.
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