The Frenzy Over Tehran’s Tweets: Interpreting Iran’s New Public Diplomacy

In recent days, the blogosphere and the international press have been abuzz over the public relations campaign undertaken by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Tweets by accounts associated with both men — caveat: the president has not explicitly confirmed his —can be credited with nudging Iran’s public posture on Syria in a more moderate direction, and distancing the new Rouhani administration from the anti-Semitic trope of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Zarif has also taken to Facebook, posting regularly on substantive issues including Syria, and on that site as well as on Twitter, he has engaged in an unusual back-and-forth with his readership, including the daughter of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on issues including Iran’s nuclear program, Syria, and the country’s official stance on the Holocaust.

All this is good for Iran, and a greatly welcome change from the repugnant rhetoric that Ahmadinejad indulged in for so many years. Surely many Iranians are thrilled that Rouhani is delivering on a key plank of his campaign agenda by beginning to chip away at Iran’s dismally low standing in the world. And many will be even more receptive to the president’s public diplomacy if it is accompanied by what one of his most influential appointees has promised, an intensification of the new government’s nascent efforts to loosen restrictions and improve internet access within Iran.

Still, the media frenzy over a handful of tweets seems a bit excessive; the new Iranian social media campaign has spawned largely laudatory stories in the New York Times, the Washington PostTime magazine, and the BBC, just to name a few. Iran’s Islamic Republic has managed to maintain the largest population of Jews in the Middle East living outside the state of Israel, and its leadership has been known to issue munificent statements toward the community on a semi-regular basis, although perhaps never quite so charmingly as the Twitter pronouncements.

More acutely, the executive branch’s flirtation with social media flies in the face of the real restrictions that ordinary Iranians face in similar pursuits. It can be hoped that Rouhani, Zarif and the other new cabinet officials who are apparently joining them on Twitter and Facebook may legitimize the use of these avenues for the Iranian population. However, ideological double standards have a strange endurance in the Islamic Republic; the proclivity for Iranian bureaucrats to have multiple international television channels blaring in their offices has not eroded the formal ban on satellite dishes or the periodic implementation of this regulation upon ordinary Iranians. 

Rouhani deserves real credit for beginning to change the discourse of Iranian politics, and one can only hope that Iran’s government and its policies will one day reflect the cosmopolitan and cultured perspective of its citizenry. But to live by the tweet is to die by the tweet, and Rouhani’s public diplomacy gurus might do well to look back on the experience of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whose rhetorical graciousness and civility seemed to intensify both opposition at home as well as skepticism abroad.

Cleansing the Islamic Republic of its problematic rhetoric would require disavowing its ideological foundations and its iconic personalities, a step that no regime insider is likely to undertake willingly, and certainly not a president whose influence is a product of his careful pragmatism. The photo accompanying this blog post, taken in Tehran during the 1990s, underscores that reality; even during the heyday of the reform movement, the regime continued to expound the same anti-Israeli rhetoric that generated so much controversy when Ahmadinejad repeated it.

Rouhani, like many other Iranian politicians, has dismissed President Obama’s rhetorical overtures toward Tehran and insisted that Washington must be judged on its actions, not its words. Naturally, the world will apply the same standard to the Islamic Republic. As Javier Solana, who formerly served as NATO secretary general and EU foreign policy chief, and is now a distinguished fellow here at Brookings, commented — also, notably, via Twitter — welcoming Zarif and Rouhani, whose inauguration he attended, to Twitter and adding “let’s hope they bring new policies, boosting the chance of peace.” That’s a sentiment that we can all retweet.