Alborz Habibi and Christine Petré
Last updated: 5 September, 2013

Social media – a new political tool in Iran?

Top Iranian politicians are turning to social media not just to get their voices heard but also to engage with the public. Are we witnessing a shift in the usually so controlled regime?

Only hours after a Twitter account, which reportedly belongs to President Rouhani wished all Jews a Happy New Year, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted his first tweet, where he put emphasis on interaction:

Javad Zarif ‏@JZarif
thanks for warm welcome to twitter. hope to be able to #interact & stay in touch.

In his first day on Twitter he got more than 5,000 followers and messages from all over the world. During his so far eight tweets he has already answered questions on both nuclear weapons and the Holocaust.

The Twitter account quickly received international attention, including Christiane Amanpour, who has interviewed former President Ahmadinejad – a man known for his Holocaust denial and harsh rhetoric – several times:

Christiane Amanpour ‏@camanpour
Just spoke with Iranian FM @JZarif – who confirms he IS tweeting and wishes Jews in Iran & around the world a happy new year! — Ditto!

While Laura Rozen tweeted:

Laura Rozen ‏@lrozen36m
‘Peace by tweet.This will go down in history.’ Hill friend reacts to stunning series of tweets by new Iran pres & FM @jzarif @HassanRouhani

Iranian officials’ direct interaction with people haven’t only surprised foreigners but Iranians themselves, who elected the moderate cleric in the June 2013 elections mainly due to his promises of bringing more openness and transparency to government, as well as building constructive interaction with the rest of the world.

But there are still more officials signing up on Facebook, a website which has been blocked by the Iranian regime since the disputed elections in 2009.

Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri and Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh have updated their new accounts on Facebook several times since the elections and only two days ago Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic created a Facebook page, urging people to send her private messages and tips on how authorities can convince the Iranian diaspora to return home.

“One of the issues raised by the government of prudence and hope is the return of Iranians abroad and interact with them and use the skills of all Iranians across the world. Your tips and comments, my dear countrymen, can help the servants of this country apply an appropriate approach and strategy,” wrote Afkham, who has been the first woman to be appointed spokesperson of a ministry since the 1979 revolution.

Her page was created as the Oil minister asked, on his Facebook wall, how people evaluate the presence of international companies in the country. Meanwhile, earlier this week, Zarif debated the Syrian crisis on his Facebook page, which until today has received over 120,000 likes.

In a country where Internet access is restricted this new social media trend is particularly interesting.