How Twitter is transforming diplomacy: Iranian tweets and the P5+1 nuclear negotiations

Constance Duncombe

Credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

In March 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the Iran and P5+1 nuclear deal a failure, claiming Iran was following in the steps of North Korea in its ‘alarming ongoing provocations’ and efforts to destabilize the Middle East. Responding to Tillerson’s accusations, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran had continued to comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the US needed to change its stance on the issue.

The current US President Donald Trump was also extremely vocal in his dislike of the JCPOA during his election campaign, recently warning Iran via Twitter it was ‘playing with fire’ and that he would be less accommodating than the previous administration.

On the face of it these exchanges are similar in tone to much of the discourse surrounding Iran-US relations in recent history. Given the ‘well-worn’ accusations Zarif alluded to, and the lack of official ties between the two states, how were Iran and the US able to overcome such ingrained animosity in recent times and work towards the successful nuclear deal?

As I showed in a recent article for International Affairs, a significant aspect of the success of the 2015 nuclear deal was Iran — US engagement over Twitter. The ability of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Javad Zarif to communicate so freely in the last stages of the Obama administration — a ‘relatively new’ but ‘extraordinarily important’ situation — was arguably the result of a relationship built through both personal interaction and consistent Twitter communication during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations between 2013 and 2015. Given the difficulties of high-level diplomatic interaction between Iran and the US, due to the severing of diplomatic ties in 1980, social media has become a significant platform through which diplomats can communicate.

Why social media?

Social media challenges the conventional practice of diplomacy. Rather than relying on formal channels of communication and informal social gatherings, diplomats are increasingly using Twitter to communicate with their counterparts. Twitter posts are not only viewed by other diplomats — they are read by a global audience, adding a never-before-seen level of scrutiny to this form of communication. There is also less time to digest and evaluate information posted on social media, which can lead to a slow realization of change. However, if Twitter posts are examined closely as another artefact of information in addition to official policy statements, we can begin to see how possible openings for dialogue have formed over time.

Social media posts can reflect ‘us and them’ demarcations, framing state identity and difference and how a state desires recognition from others. How a state uses social media to represent itself and recognize others can open new avenues for foreign policy, while foreclosing others.

In focus: Iran — US relations in the Obama era

Diplomacy between Iran and the US has long been significantly hampered by a lack of high-level engagement: following the disastrous hostage crisis of 1979–1981, the closest an Iranian and US president have come to personal official communication was the 2013 phone call between Obama and Rouhani. Various historical grievances, from the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh to the Iran — Iraq War, have given credence to representations of the US as a hypocritical bully intent on undermining Iran. In this context there was a limit to how far diplomatic engagement between high-level diplomats, such as Zarif and Kerry, could go towards easing tensions when state leaders — Rouhani, Khamenei and Obama — were unable to personally intuit their respective ‘adversary’s’ intentions. Something was needed to break the deadlock: Twitter.

Through the P5+1 negotiations Iran’s Twitter use challenged traditional notions of diplomacy. Instead of relying just on formal channels of communication, Iranian state representatives publically reached out to their US counterparts using social media. For instance, during the initial stages of the nuclear negotiations, when the French vetoed a draft agreement, Zarif tweeted at Kerry to express both dismay at the outcome and Iran’s continued commitment to reaching a mutually agreeable deal:

Here Zarif used the instantaneous nature of Twitter to represent Iran as progressive and peaceful, contesting dominant narratives of the country and its behaviour. Communicating a response to the scuppering of the draft deal outside of formal negotiations allowed Iran’s frustration to be articulated at one remove. Doing so on social media arguably enabled Zarif to publically communicate such a feeling without jeopardizing the negotiations.

Being able to ‘talk honestly’ during the negotiations is a significant step towards developing a trusting relationship both between diplomats and on an inter-state level. While trust is not unconditional, particularly given each side’s historical grievances, the risk Zarif took in complaining directly and publically to Kerry suggests an attempt by Iran to represent itself as a progressive and peaceful state, desiring constructive engagement, countering recognition of itself as dangerous and irrational. Three more key messages were conveyed through Twitter during this period.

Mutual respect is a win-win

Mutual respect is an important trope that emerges from Iranian Twitter feeds. It dictates the terms of the negotiations as a win-win opportunity for both Iran and the US, as a counter-argument to the Cold War mentality of a zero-sum game. These interconnected Twitter tropes signify that if the US adequately considers aspects of Iranian identity, this would provide affirmation that its identity has worth and value; that Iran’s concerns regarding the nuclear issue are being taken seriously. Doing so would signal that Iran would be treated with respect based on its identity.

Iran as a peaceful and progressive state

The strong and progressive nature of Iranian identity is represented through a focus on the importance of international law. During the nuclear negotiations, Khamenei, Rouhani and Zarif have emphasized Iranian how behaviour fits within the constraints of the NPT and the requirements of the IAEA. Through this representation Iran wishes to be recognized as a law-abiding international citizen, countering US representations of Iran as irrational and acting outside international law.

Since the Mujahideen el-Kalq (MEK) revealed in 2002 that Iran was undertaking clandestine work on its nuclear facilities in Nantaz and Arak, Iran has been under immense international scrutiny regarding its nuclear program. Nonetheless, Iran has continued to represent its enrichment rights under Article IV as a national issue supported by all Iranians. In doing so, Iran’s ‘red lines’ — a right to enrichment under Article IV of the NPT — are represented not just as a diplomatic manoeuvre but an extension of Iranian identity they wish to be recognized. Thus the emphasis of Iran’s ‘red lines’ through Twitter is not a proscriptive threat; rather, ‘red lines’ are an attempt to overcome US representations of Iran as dangerous and a concern for international security. This representation further emphasizes Iranian desire for recognition as a strong, progressive state.

Negotiation as an opportunity

Given the continued representation of Iran as a progressive and peaceful state, the nuclear negotiations are discursively framed as an opportunity for both states, emphasizing Iran — US dialogue based on mutual respect. For Iran, the chance to potentially relieve the stress of sanctions while at the same time being recognized as independent and powerful is a significant chance for transformative change in Iran — US relations.

Iranian representations of itself as independent and powerful extend from a general discourse emerging from the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the Shah and established the Islamic Republic of Iran as the first theocratic Islamic state. This representation harks back to the struggle for Iranian independence from western interference and looks forward to a new political order where Iran’s power is recognized. Here we can see a clear support for the negotiating team, which was uncertain in previous outreach attempts. Initially, Khamenei was not supportive of efforts to normalize relations between Iran and the US — particularly under the Ahmadinejad-led government — yet this representational trope suggests an implicit shift toward encouraging the development of dialogue over the nuclear issue. What evolves from this trope is an impression of trust in the negotiators as brave ‘children of the Revolution’ and support for their engagement with the West and the US in particular. The negotiators are taking risks with greater rapprochement towards the US on behalf of Iran. Here the idea of compromise emerges as a signifier not of capitulation to western demands, but as the carving out of a new path of independence. Thus the negotiations are an opportunity, rather than a hindrance to the progress of Iran as a strong independent state.


Twitter provides insight into how Iran recognizes the US and desires recognition for itself through particular representations. These representations are essential for understanding how the seemingly intractable nature of Iran — US hostilities was nonetheless surmounted and resulted in a successful nuclear deal.

Iran communicated positive aspects of its identity rather than overly emphasising the negative aspects of US identity, shifting the dynamics of its struggle for recognition. This is a significant change, and one that is accessible through analysis of social media posts. Another unusual element is the direct social media engagement between Iranian policy-makers and their counterparts. Even though such engagement was not face-to-face, interpersonal trust between policy-makers arguably emerged in correlation with positive steps in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations.

Looking Ahead

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has thrown this development of transformative diplomacy into doubt. In the lead up to the elections Trump was clear about his distrust of Iran, going so far as to tweet during the P5+1 negotiations in 2015 that ‘Iran continues to delay the nuclear deal while doing many bad things behind our backs’. The more recent tweet that ‘Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE’ and should thank the US for its ‘terrible deal’ reflects the more ingrained representations of Iran as an irrational trouble-maker acting outside the bounds of international law.

Although Rouhani looks set to win at the next Iranian presidential elections in May, if only by a margin, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s emergence on Twitter suggests a greater Iranian concern about Trump’s tweets than political commentators might assume. Posting as @Ahmadinejad1956, his latest tweet asks ‘is the person that drops the world’s largest bomb on #Afghanistan a bearer of peace or a demon?’.

So, while Zarif and Kerry’s unusual interactions on Twitter could arguably be said to have fostered a greater sense of trust during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations, there is every possibility that a Twitter brawl between Iran and the US could undermine these positive moves towards greater reconciliation. Only time, and a review of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets, will tell.

Constance Duncombe is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Her recent article, ‘Twitter and transformative diplomacy: social media and Iran-US relations’, appears in the May 2017 issue of International Affairs.

Click here to read the article.