Iran’s Twitter Politics

In his talking points, Rouhani described Iran’s interim nuclear deal reached with world powers in November as a “win-win,” and apologized for poorly administered government food handouts to the needy.

In his talking points, Rouhani described Iran’s interim nuclear deal reached with world powers in November as a “win-win,” and apologized for poorly administered government food handouts to the needy.
Photo: Rouhani’s Instagram, @hrouhani Feb. 5, 2014.

On February 5th, a live interview with President Hassan Rouhani was delayed for over an hour on Iranian state TV after an apparent dispute between the official state broadcaster and the president’s office over who would interview him.

As Iran’s Channel One filled airtime with songs from the 1979 revolution, a news ticker announced technical difficulties. The broadcast then shifted to an Iranian TV series, leaving audiences to speculate about what had become of the president.

The information void was broken when President Rouhani’s Twitter account blasted its 181,000 followers, calling out state TV head and hardliner, Ezatollah Zarghami, for delaying the broadcast. 

“Head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Zarghami, prevented live discussion w/ people on #IRIB1 which was scheduled for an hour ago,” read Rouhani’s English-language tweet.

According to multiple reports, the dispute was that Rouhani’s office wanted journalist Sonia Pouryamin to conduct the interview, whereas Zarghami preferred the more conservative Kazem Rouhani-Nejad (both reporters are employed by the network).

Apparently, a compromise was reached shortly after Rouhani’s tweet went viral – the interview went ahead featuring both reporters, and the exchanges were bland, according to journalists working in Iran. “It wasn’t even an interview, just talking points,” said Sune Engel Rasmussen, a Tehran-based freelance journalist.

Unremarkable though the end result may have been, the events leading up to the interview were the latest indicator of hardliners looking to undermine Iran’s new liberal-leaning president – and using media to do it. While millions of Iranians watch foreign-based channels using illegal satellite dishes, IRIB remains the only legal television and radio broadcaster inside Iran. Its leadership is heavily influenced by the country’s conservative elites, especially Iran’s paramilitary force – the Revolutionary Guards – accountable only to the Supreme Leader. Zarghami, directly appointed as IRIB head by Ayatollah Khamenei, is himself a former revolutionary guards general.

But the conservatives’ virtual monopoly over broadcast media doesn’t give them the same stranglehold on information that it once did. Social media, which helped the reformist Green Movement bring international attention to their anti-government protests in 2009, is now being used by president Rouhani and his allies toward similar ends – cutting through state censors in real time.

“This is the first president with a Twitter account, and he said something that spread like wildfire even inside Iran because people have access to Twitter,” said Bahman Kalbasi, a New York-based correspondent for BBC’s Persian service. “I’ve never seen something like that before.”

The power of Twitter to subvert state censors was on display again March 7, after a press conference with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s and Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. In his remarks, Sikorski expressed shock at Iran’s censors after he was unable to access the website of a major Polish newspaper while visiting the country. But Iranians wouldn’t have known about the criticism from watching state TV.

“Apparently, the part of my press conference with @JZarif in which I talked about censorship in Iran was… censored.” tweeted the foreign minister.

While social media sites Twitter and Facebook are illegal in Iran, both are easily accessed by anyone with the means to purchase filter breakers, called VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Their use is especially prevalent among Iran’s urban, middle class, and has been adopted by conservative and liberal politicians alike – including the supreme leader and President Rouhani. While Rouhani’s tweets are rarely confrontational, his early February jab at IRIB showed the potential for Twitter’s political power.

But some journalists urge caution about Rouhani’s social media habits.

“It’s easy to get blindsided by Rouhani’s embrace of these social media things, because it makes him a moderate face, modern, more open to the West,” said freelancer Rasmussen. “At the same time, the real serious limitations on cultural freedom and social freedom, he doesn’t touch them at all. Human rights, press freedoms – press freedoms have gotten worse in the past couple months,” he said.

Besides, Rouhani’s use of Facebook and Twitter doesn’t change the fact that those sites remain officially blocked and banned in Iran. Despite calls from Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati, to lift the ban on social media, so far Rouhani has shown little political will to do so.

However, other political maneuvers could prove more effective in improving internet access if successful, like Rouhani’s recent promise to increase internet speeds in Iran tenfold by March of 2015.

“The work has already begun,” he declared in early February, “and by the grace of God, it will continue.’’

As it stands now, Iran ranks among the lowest in the world for internet speeds, and VPNs make internet access even slower. Such slow speeds are a de facto censor, making it prohibitive for most internet users to view YouTube videos, for example.