Today the State Department announced the launch of a “virtual embassy” for Iran, a website dedicated to “enhancing outreach and dialogue between the American and Iranian people.” It’s available in English and Farsi. It has the same layout as the websites of other U.S. Embassies, except for the modifier “virtual” in its title. It also contains much of the same information as other Embassy websites, with links to sub-pages about visas, U.S. citizen services, news, and how to study in the U.S. One evident difference, however, when compared to other Embassy websites, is a link labeled “Open Societies” where other websites have a link labeled “Resources.” Under this link is a set of sub-pages designed to inform readers about civil society, universal human rights, and the American way of life, among other topics. The website also has links to the official government Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels specifically for Iran.
The official press statement calls the virtual embassy a “new and exciting engagement opportunity between the peoples of Iran and the United States.” By providing a virtual embassy, State is offering “information and alternative viewpoints to the Iranian people.” This website and the social media feeds provided by State seek “to challenge the Iranian regime’s efforts to place an electronic curtain of surveillance, satellite jamming and online filtering around its people.” In the special briefing held today, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs emphasized the importance of direct engagement with the Iranian people.
There were a couple of interesting questions during the briefing. A reporter asked about the likelihood of this website being blocked by the Iranian government, which the Under Secretary agreed is likely but “we have put resources into training people all around the world in ways to go around jamming.” This made me think of it as a 21st century form of supplying arms to guerrillas – in this case, technological guerrillas. An interesting consideration, reflecting the importance of access to information technology in today’s “battleground.”
The second interesting question asked if starting a virtual embassy would not make it harder for the U.S. to establish a formal relationship with Tehran. The Under Secretary responded that the U.S. has a “dual-track process…a strategy of both sanctions and, in essence, what one might call coercive diplomacy and engagement with Iran…that we remain open to having serious discussions about their nuclear program if they are indeed serious and ready to have those discussions without preconditions.” I found the leap made by the Under Secretary from a question about formal relations to the issue of nuclear-equipped Iran quite interesting. Of course, she was speaking extemporaneously and with the recent events concerning nuclear capabilities in Iran that is clearly on her mind. However, bringing the issue up in response to a fairly innocuous question makes me take a more critical viewpoint of the virtual embassy.
Naturally, the virtual embassy is a propaganda tool. All embassy websites are, just like all the information access points used by State – their purpose is to paint a positive picture of the U.S. and its actions. In terms of national security though, one must be careful with the use of propaganda. While a nice website isn’t going to change the minds of terrorist group members who already have a firm opinion about the U.S., what kind of effect can it have on everyday people who are not sure how they feel? These people already are bombarded with messages about how evil the U.S. is, so what difference will one website make? This is of course a rhetorical question. A more important question is, how can this one website make a positive difference? I’m no specialist in persuasive rhetoric, but I certainly know condescension when I see it – and so does anyone else, especially someone primed to consider the U.S. as an evil super power. While I think the launch of a virtual embassy for Iran is a good action, I hope the people writing the copy and supplying the “information” for the site are well advised on how to tread lightly. Because the last thing the Iranian people need is more propaganda.