State Magazine July-August 2012 : Page 25

Virtual Tehran By Gregory W. Sullivan, senior policy advisor, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Department’s online mission to the Iranian people country by lowering the Electronic Curtain. The Iranian regime seeks to monopolize the information and opinions that reach the Iranian population, thereby limiting discussion and internal dissent. However, Iran’s attempts to control online information have not kept up with the development of virtual private networks, proxy servers and circumven-tion software, which has allowed Iranian Internet users to bypass the Electronic Curtain without detection. Facebook is one example; while the social networking giant has never officially confirmed the number of Iranian users, the Iranian government itself estimates that more than 17 million Iranians have Facebook accounts, despite the fact that Facebook is one of the 5 million websites the regime blocks. The Department’s message through Virtual Embassy Tehran and its social media platforms is that U.S.-Iranian relations do not have a pre-destined outcome. Through this concerted online engagement effort, we are trying to convey that the United States is not the reason for Iranian isolation, and our relationship could be different if the Iranian govern-ment changed its behavior. Over the past six months, there have been strong indications that this message is getting through. For example, in January, U.S. Navy ships rescued an Iranian fishing boat that had been seized by Somali pirates, who held its crew hostage for more than 40 days. Persian-subtitled video of that rescue and as-sociated photos were viewed more than 183,000 times through Virtual Embassy Tehran. Our story led to discussions on Persian blogs, noting that not only had the Iranian Navy not made the recovery of this vessel a priority, but Iranian media had failed to report on it, despite the ves-sel’s disappearance for more than a month. In short, our reporting not only garnered goodwill toward the United States, but raised legitimate questions regarding the priorities of the Iranian Navy and Iranian state-controlled media. Similarly, when the Department used the website to congratulate the Iranian wrestling team on its Freestyle Wrestling World Cup victory in Baku in May, the outpouring of positive reactions from Iranian blogs and even state-owned media was striking. The frequency with which the Iranian regime reacts to the Department’s online platforms proves that the message is being heard. Encouraged by their initial success, the Iran public diplomacy teams in NEA and IIP developed yet another way to communicate with young Iranians: animated video. Using a script written at the Department, NEA and IIP developed a short video highlighting the challenges that average Iranians face every day in the form of regime-sponsored censor-ship and website filtering. This video is another way to raise awareness worldwide of the Iranians’ plight, and to turn the tables on regime hardliners by illustrating how they isolate their own people from the rest of the world. As Virtual Embassy Tehran passes its six-month anniversary, the De-partment is focused on developing more content and a wider availability of virtual exchange offerings for Iranian audiences. With this website, the U.S. now has a virtual public diplomacy surrogate to the bricks-and-mortar facility that was lost in Tehran more than 33 years ago. Through sustained engagement on this platform, the United States is building a more positive image of America in the hearts and minds of a new gen-eration of Iranians, a critical demographic that may disagree with U.S. policy, but consistently expresses a desire to have a better relationship with the people of the United States. STATE.GOV/STATEMAG // STATE MAGAZINE The long, low two-story brick building that once housed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been repurposed since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. With the Islamic Revolution and the hostage-taking of U.S. Embassy staff for 444 days, formal U.S. diplomatic relations with Iran, and thousands of daily interactions with the local population in admin-istrative, consular, cultural, economic and political affairs, were severed. For the Department’s public diplomacy practitioners, the loss of the embassy meant loss of our dialogue with the Iranian people and our best vehicle for promoting understanding. Despite its shuttering, the embassy, both as a physical compound and representational concept, never lost its emotional hold on the Iranian people. While some in Iran called for its destruction, the embassy compound has undergone several evolutions since the hostage-taking: as a training center for the Revolutionary Guard (the “guardians” of the Islamic Revolution), a bookstore, a museum dedicated to “American imperialism” and an art gallery of murals commissioned by the Iranian regime depicting the United States as an evil empire. This rebrand-ing effort seems only to have reinforced the central, haunting role the embassy and relations with the United States continue to play in the Iranian national psyche. In an effort to end the 33-year-long diplomatic estrangement from the Iranian people, the Department of State in December launched Virtual U.S. Embassy Tehran. Envisioned as an information hub for a comprehensive online engagement strategy, Virtual Embassy Tehran (iran.usembassy.gov) was an instant hit, collecting more than 770,000 page-views in the first 72 hours from 273,000 visitors, and garnering more than 800 references on websites and blogs. Likewise, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ (NEA) broad Persian-language social network-ing effort, marketed under the name USAdarFarsi (translated: USA in Persian), has seen a huge upswing in Facebook fans and Twitter follow-ers, and now stands at more than 625,000 viewers for its growing collec-tion of Persian-language videos on YouTube. These numbers are remark-able, considering what Secretary of State Clinton has called the regime’s “Electronic Curtain” of censorship, Internet filtering and broadcast jamming, plus the lack of diplomatic relations for 33 years. Demand for new content across these platforms is quickly reaching the capacity of the bureau’s small Persian Online Engagement Team (POET). Virtual Embassy Tehran was the product of many bureaus. Though this site was conceived in and maintained by NEA, the Bureau of Con-sular Affairs moved mountains to design uniform visa application proce-dures for the thousands of Iranian citizens who apply every day through posts in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Armenia and elsewhere. The Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) provided a treasure trove of Persian-language materials on Internet freedom, open societies, American culture and other topics compelling to Iranian readers, and continues to support the site with a regular diet of new material. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has shared a wealth of information regarding educational opportunities in the United States and has embraced NEA’s request to explore “virtual exchange pro-grams,” including a virtual Musical Ambassador series. One of Virtual Embassy Tehran’s goals is countering the Iranian regime’s attempt to control the flow of information in and out of the 25

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