Digital platforms are now increasingly used for diplomatic signaling. MFAs and diplomats often use Twitter to comment on crises, address other nations’ policies and even criticize state action. They do so knowing full well that their Twitter accounts are monitored by their peers, and influential social media users such as journalists and blogger. Already in 2016, the head of the digital diplomacy unit at the Polish MFA told me that she views other diplomatic accounts as a source of ‘information and inspiration’.
One of the earliest examples of diplomatic signaling was published by the German MFA at the height of the Crimean Crisis. It was on Twitter that the MFA announced the expulsion of Russia from the G8. This tweet was the first ever to include the hashtag #G7 and, once published, journalists throughout the world announced Russia’s banishment. There were no press conferences or briefings. Just a single tweet. The Russian MFA also took Twitter to send its own signal- the G8 was an informal club and unlike the Gentlemen’s clubs that line London’s Pall Mall, one should not care about being banished from an informal club. In other words, banishment would not alter Russia’s policy of annexing Crimea. So, the crisis continued.
The past week has seen a flurry of diplomatic signaling regrading America’s decision to enter into a new ‘Iran Deal’- an agreement that would lift US financial sanctions from Iran in return for the latter’s abandonment of its nuclear ambitions. Overall, the signals are quiet encouraging for those who believe in engagement over war. The question arising from these signals is not if the US will sign a deal with Iran, but when. In other words, the match has been approved. What is now being negotiated is the size of the dowry, the wedding’s guest list and the seating arrangement. No one wants to sit the Ayatollah Khamenei near drunk uncle Dave, or position senile aunt Ruth who still uses the term ‘Yids’ next to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Iranian officials seem to be sending two clear signals. The first, tweeted by the Ayatollah links Iran’s nuclear program to its standing in the world. Iran demands to be recognized as a local, and global power. It demands a legitimate seat at the table of international affairs. And it is willing to suffer until it obtains such recognition. The Ayatollah has repeatedly stated that Iran outlived Donald Trump, and it can just as easily outlive Biden.
These signals are important for three reasons. First, the Ayatollah does not dismiss the idea of an Iran Deal altogether. Second, respect is something that diplomats can offer. Diplomacy is after all centered on courtship; on gifts and processions and high level summits. Third, the Ayatollah’s demand is not outrageous. Iran is a local power. It controls territories in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. It can wage war on many states, and threatens many others. Recognizing Iran’s standing is not a concession, but an admittance of reality, to paraphrase Donald Trump’s rationale for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
While the Ayatollah’s tweets are demanding, Iran’s foreign minister uses a lighter tone. He avoids crude language or vulgar metaphors. This is not surprising as Javad Zarif, the current foreign minister, is the regime’s kindly face. His smile is his trademark and he was and remains part of Iran’s ‘charm offensive’. Like Iranian President Rouhani, Zarif used social media during the 2015 Iran negotiations to signal that Iran was willing to join the international community and engage in fruitful diplomacy with the world. He used social media as in 2015 Facebook and Twitter were still associated with the Arab Spring and the hopeful spirit of democracy in the Middle East.
Zarif’s tweet’s translate the Ayatollah’s signals into concrete policies. Specifically, that America must take the first step and lifts its sanctions before Iran aggress to halt its nuclear program. It was, Zarif argues, American that renegaded on the 2015 Deal. It was America that abandoned its commitments and it was America that proved an unreliable partner. Iran, once accused of manipulations and lies, kept its commitments. For a while at least. Here again are important signals. The question is no longer one of principle. Iran is willing to accept the formula of sanctions in return for Uranium. The question is who will make the first concession.
American signals have been harder to identify. No US official has taken to Twitter to officially comment on a new Iran Deal including President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, the White House spokeswoman or the President’s national security advisor. However, the State Department did publish two tweets quoting Biden’s assertion that American diplomacy would once again rest on strong coordination with its allies. On the one hand, this is a positive signal as the Iran Deal was not signed by the US alone but included the EU, Russia and China. Moreover, the EU has remained part of the Iran Deal despite America’s decision to abandon it. On the other hand, working with allies, and accepting allies’ positions are two different things. Biden’s most important signal did not come from Twitter but from the super bowl where, during a pre-game interview, he expressly stated that the US would not take the first move and remove its sanctions from Iran.
But in diplomacy, no always means maybe.
Two other signals sent by US officials were published by the State Department Spokesperson. Shown below, they detail a phone conversation between the US Secretary of State and the UAE’s foreign minister in which they discussed the recent Abraham accords signed with Israel and healing rifts among Gulf States. These signals are noteworthy as they signal to Iran, and the world, that the US will remain committed to the security of its partners in the Middle East, a security that hinges on an Iranian deal. In other words, the US wishes to lower tensions in the region, a goal that can only be achieved through Iranian nuclear disarmament.
Of all the signals, one of the most important one is Israel’s silence on the issue. On Twitter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not addressed Iran, or its nuclear program for some time. Foreign analysts may falsely assume that Israel’s silence signals acquiescence with an Iran Deal. But to interpret digital messages, one must know the digital actors involved. The Israeli Prime Minister has remained silent on the issue as his Twitter campaign is focused on Israel’s response to the Covid outbreak. Unlike the past, Netanyahu’s election campaign does not focus on Iran and its existential threat to Israel. This is because the 2021 elections are a referendum on Netanyahu’s management of the Covid crisis. As Henry Kissinger famously remarked, Israel has no foreign policy. Only a domestic policy.