The End of the Charm Offensive? Iran on Social Media

The 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran was greeted with a global sigh of relief. Here was a clear indication that Iran was willing to rejoin the international community even at the cost of halting its nuclear weapons program. From the eve of his election, Rouhani was positively depicted in Western media outlets as a moderate leader whose main goal was to end the financial isolation of Iran and improve the quality of life of Iranian’s. Rouhani’s election was seen as a reaction to the tumultuous tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, as President of Iran, transformed Iran into a fortress of solitude with few friends or allies. Soon after Rouhani took office, he and Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, joined Twitter. This move was soon dubbed a “charm offensive” as both leaders sought to refashion Iran’s global image. By joining Twitter, Rouhani and Zarif signalled a willingness to engage with the world, to end Iran’s seclusion and to take part in global conversations. Even more importantly, the two leaders joined Twitter at a time when social media were still viewed as democratic tools that facilitated the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East. Rouhani and Zarif thus tied their global image to the hopeful spirit of the Arab Spring.

Rouhani’s hopes for Iran were partially met when the 2015 Iran Deal was signed. The Deal stipulated that in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons program, all financial sanctions would be removed allowing Iran to become an integral part of the global economy. As soon as the Deal was announced, diplomats from all over the world arrived in Teheran to explore opportunities for trade, commerce and foreign direct investments.

Ultimately, the Iran Deal fell apart thanks to US President Donald Trump. Iran’s great experiment proved a failure and its citizens learned that international accords can be broken with ease and are subject to the whims of outlandish leaders. Once again the pendulum swung and Iran recently elected a new President- Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who has been charged with crimes against humanity. Though Raisi is not active on Twitter, the new Iranian foreign minister is. And an analysis of his tweets suggests that the charm offensive is over. Tweets by the Iranian foreign minister focus on four key issues, the first of which is the current talks in Vienna in which world powers are trying to negotiate a new Iran Deal.

The Iranian foreign minister seems to adopt a dual rhetoric when discussing the Vienna talks. On the one hand he asserts that Iran is ready to finalise an agreement and that the main issue facing diplomats is language. On the other hand, the foreign minister demands that Iran be respected, that the US cease its provocations and expansion of sanctions and that the world powers recognize and accept the fact that Iran has its own national interests that must be recognized. In one tweet, the minister states that Iran is “carefully watching” the actions of President Biden. This is a far more assertive online tone when compared with former minister Javad Zarif whose Twitter profile often showcased smiles and warm exchanges with other negotiators.

The second issue frequently mentioned by the Iranian foreign minister is Iran’s hopes to establish warm and friendly relations with its neighbours including Turkey and Afghanistan. The foreign minister was especially active online following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and was the first to summon a regional conference on Afghanistan’s future and prosperity. These tweets position Iran as an important regional power and, even more fundamentally, as one of the only countries to have established new ties with the Taliban. In this sense, all roads to dealing with Afghanistan now pass through Teheran. These tweets may constitute a signal sent to negotiators in Vienna, a signal which states that the world powers will need Iran’s help if they are to avert further crises in the Middle East, or in Asia.  

The third issue deals with Iran’s international profile. Tweets published by the foreign minister suggest that Iran is no pariah. The foreign minister engages with Western nations such as the UK, with global powers such as Russia and is even the “belle of the ball” at the UN General Assembly with the minister meeting with counterparts from Spain, Ireland, Belarus, Venezuela, Ireland and more. These tweets may also be an important signal sent by Iran to the world powers according to which Iran is not as isolated as it was in 2015 and, as such, it is not desperate to reach a new agreement.     

Finally, the Iranian foreign minister has published several tweets highlighting disagreements with world powers. Such is the case with the two tweets below in which the foreign minister openly berates the EU, the UK and the US. Tweets such as these position Iran as a confident regional power, one that is not afraid to escalate tensions with world powers. This too may be a signal sent by Teheran to the negotiators in Vienna, the signal being- the charm offensive is over.

An important question is whether the world is listening to Iran’s new foreign minister. To answer this question, I analysed the number of foreign ministries, UN missions and journalists that follow the minister on Twitter. The results can be seen in the graph below.

As can be seen, Iran’s foreign minister attracts very few journalists and diplomats on Twitter. Out of a sample of 529 journalists and news organisations across the world, only 4 follow the foreign minister. This is also the case with MFAs as out of a sample of 100 foreign ministries on Twitter only 2 follow the foreign minister. The minister also fails to attract UN missions and permanent representatives.  These figures indicate that though Iran is speaking to the world, the world is not listening. This is significant for both Iran and the world as the foreign minister may be sending signals to the world powers yet these signals are falling on deaf ears.  

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