Amid Nuclear Talks, Iran Pushes Diplomacy Online
On Wednesday, diplomats from the United States and Iran — along with five other world powers — go back to Geneva and the negotiating table. They'll be discussing a possible deal to limit Iran's controversial nuclear program, which has sparked international tensions for a decade.
The previous meeting between Iran and the five permanent Security Council members (Britain, China, France, Russia, the U.S.) plus Germany failed to produce an agreement.
But aside from the public press conferences and official statements, a lot of the story has played out online, especially on the Iranian side.
Just before the last round of negotiations, the website NuclearEnergy.ir launched, apparently the work of the Iranian government. (NPR emailed the site's administrators for comment, but did not hear back.)
The site's point of view is unmistakable.
"Iran is no different from other countries," the Motives page claims. "In fact, the main objective of its pursuit of nuclear technology is, and has always been, to produce clean electricity for its growing population."
"It's clearly an attempt to reach out to the outside world, most notably, the United States," says journalist Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar in the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Wright tells NPR's Arun Rath that NuclearEnergy.ir is just one part of a major online push by the Iranian government.
President Hassan Rouhani has two Twitter accounts — one in English and one in Persian — which he launched during his presidential campaign earlier this year. It's suspected that Rouhani himself does not tweet, but Wright says it's clear that the words are coming from his office.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also has an account, which has been verified by Twitter. Zarif even made news in September by wishing Jews around the world a "Happy Rosh Hashana" and later appeared to distance himself from Iran's previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Wright says Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also apparently has an account. (He has more than 28,000 followers, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn't follow any other users.)
During the last round of nuclear negotiations, Khamenei tweeted support for the Iranian diplomats.
Wright says the comment "was actually designed to push back against the hard-liners [in Iran], who rejected or questioned the diplomatic outreach."
It has not been all kind words and well-wishes. Khamenei has also taken to Twitter to harshly criticize the United States' position to keep, in President Obama's words, "all options on the table" when it comes to Iran, including military action.
Wright, who also maintains the website The Iran Primer, says that the online push by Iran's leaders amounts to "the most ambitious public diplomacy campaign since Iran's 1979 revolution."
Both Twitter and Facebook remain "technically illegal" inside Iran, she says, "but so many people in Iran have access through dialing through foreign channels that they have access to what's going on." And networks like Facebook and Twitter have also provided a forum for Iranian dissenters.
At one point, Wright says, Foreign Minister Zarif wrote about having trouble getting on his Facebook page because of poor cellphone service, "and he had hundreds of people who came back and said, 'Well, now you know what it's like for the rest of us in Iran.' "
When negotiators reconvene on Wednesday, Wright says there will likely be more social media activity logging the back-and-forth in Geneva.
But it could be largely one-sided.
"One of the most interesting things about Iran's public diplomacy campaign is that it is certainly much more ambitious and aggressive than anything the Americans are doing," she says. "In a Twitter war, the Iranians are winning decisively."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
This coming Wednesday, it's back to the negotiating table for Iran and the United States. Along with five other countries, they'll be trying to figure out a way forward on Iran's controversial nuclear program. But aside from the public press conferences and official statements, a lot of the stories played out online, especially on the Iranian side.
In fact, Iran has launched a kind of online charm offensive with a new English language website and Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for top officials.
Robin Wright has been following all this. She's an expert on Iran and a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Robin, thank you for joining us.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.
RATH: So I want to start off with the English language website. It was launched earlier this month apparently by the government. And the website is nuclearenergy.ir. Could you describe what it looks like and what they're trying to do?
WRIGHT: Well, the most interesting thing is that it's in English, so it's clearly an attempt to reach out to the outside world, most notably the United States. And it is very sophisticated in that it deals with all the key questions of what Iran is doing in its various nuclear sites, what its intentions are. And it puts out Iran's case in what is sophisticated, thoughtful language now.
There are probably a lot of nuclear experts who would say this presents only part of the story, but it is interesting that it came out just on the eve of the first round of talks in Geneva.
RATH: Of course, the Iranians aren't just building websites, but there's been this active engagement through social media. Who among the main Iranian political figures are using social networks?
WRIGHT: It's astounding actually that since the election in June - or actually since the campaign, many in - of the candidates in Iran started campaigning on Twitter or on their Facebook pages, even though both sites are technically illegal. But so many people in Iran have access through dialing in through foreign channels that they have access to what's going on.
And the president of Iran actually had an account in English. And he has, since being elected in June, used his Twitter and Facebook pages to reach out to the world, to try to define his program to Iranians.
Now, during the last round of talks in Geneva, President Hassan Rouhani tweeted 10 times during the day, during the last of three days of talks, saying: The West should not miss out this unique opportunity. Our nation is participating in the Geneva negotiations with strong will and determination.
The supreme leader of Iran tweeted the last day in English on his Twitter account: Our negotiators are children of the revolution. We strongly support those in charge of our diplomacy, which was actually designed to push back against the hard-liners in Iran who rejected or questioned the diplomatic outreach by Iran to try to find something other than a military confrontation over its nuclear program. So it's been really interesting to see what is the most ambitious public diplomacy campaign since Iran's 1979 revolution.
RATH: Twitter is banned - I'm assuming that it's condemned in some way. How do they square that, that when a supreme leader is out and active on the service himself?
WRIGHT: Well, there are a lot of Iranians who are making that point. And, in fact, when the foreign minister was in New York at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, he was tweeting regular accounts of his meetings and what he was doing, very kind of familiar accounts. He would tell about how some of the meetings were so boring he could barely keep his eyes open and so forth.
And at one point when he was on his way home, he tweeted that he was having a hard time getting service at some facility. And he had hundreds of people who came back and said to him, well, now you know what it's like for the rest of us in Iran. It's very interesting how social media is being used by the new Iranian government but also being a source to hold the new Iranian government to account.
RATH: That's Robin Wright. She's a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And you can find her analysis at iranprimer.com. Robin, thank you so much.
WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.