Iranian Diplomacy | Abdolrahman Fathollahi: The recent call by a group of Republican senators for Twitter to suspend the account of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is an exhibit A example of how the United States is pursuing a full-scale battle against Iran and targeting its public diplomacy. In November 2019, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook had also urged major social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to shut down the accounts of Iranian senior officials including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif.
Around the same time, US Treasury designated Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology for what it assumed as his role in internet censorship in Iran.
The actions underline the scope and import of Iran’s public diplomacy campaign. Earlier in August 2019, Washington had imposed sanctions on Javad Zarif who had held multiple interviews with American media outlets during his July visit to New York. Sanctions against Zarif, fluent in English and eloquent in translating Iran’s vision into West-readable discourse, proved the impact of the Iranian minister’s interviews with the US media. Secretary of State Pompeo has criticized American press for their welcoming attitude towards Javad Zarif, calling his Iranian countepart A “propagandist of the first order.”
Washington is clearly serious in limiting Iran’s maneuverability in the public diplomacy arena, including the cyberspace, as part of its ‘hybrid war’ against Iran which entails maximum pressure and tightening sanctions. The ever-increasing outreach of social media has provided Iran with a channel that brings ample benefits with low risks through which it can communicate its message to hundreds of millions of international audiences.
Zarif has indeed made fair use of the social media, in particular the Twitter, leveling shots at Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and other senior US officials via his cogent tweets and as part of his mission to advance Iran’s diplomatic policy. The apex of his Twitter diplomacy was during the arduous nuclear talks of the mid-2010s which resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), during which Zarif powerfully used his twitter account to steer the talks. (Recently, however, some observers have expressed doubt whether Zarif’s excessive focus on Twitter diplomacy could divert his attention from more serious diplomatic initiatives.)
By the end of the Cold War and with the relative decline in the importance of military power, ‘soft power’ has assumed a greater role in international relations. Public diplomacy is a key tool for soft power, only becoming more important with the Information Revolution and the transformational effect of technological advances in the ICT, as acknowledged by Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power in 1990.
Cyberspace diplomacy aims to convince the global public opinion and portray Iran desirably, especially against the most forceful Iranophobia campaign led by Washington in years and in the post-Soleimani era. Iran counts on the power of public diplomacy to expose the adverse security consequences of Washington’s policies in the region, particularly its extrajudicial assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, and to show how it inflicted casualties on the US forces during the retaliatory missile attack in Ain Assad base in Iraq, especially so when the US is trying to disinform the public on the true number of its casualties during the attack. Tehran wants to discredit Donald Trump’s claim that he did not push back Tehran with a forceful response because no harm came to American troops. As US presidential campaign gains momentum, such an expose of Trump’s false statements could bring havoc to his camp and may even cost him reelection. This could explain why Washington is fiercer than ever trying to silence Iran’s public diplomacy.
Translated by: Ali Attaran
* This article was originally published in IRD Persian.