Iran's 'charming' online rhetoric has come to an end - opinion

The charm offensive is over. All that remains is an offensive.

 IRAN’S FOREIGN MINISTER Hossein Amirabdollahian (left) meets with International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi in Tehran in November. The foreign minister seems to adopt a dual rhetoric when discussing the Vienna talks. (photo credit: WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
IRAN’S FOREIGN MINISTER Hossein Amirabdollahian (left) meets with International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi in Tehran in November. The foreign minister seems to adopt a dual rhetoric when discussing the Vienna talks.
(photo credit: WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)

The 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran was greeted with a global sigh of relief. Here was a clear signal 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 Iran’s financial isolation and improve the quality of life of Iranians.

His 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 signaled a willingness to engage with the world and end Iran’s seclusion. Even more importantly, the two leaders joined Twitter at a time when social media were still viewed as the tools that facilitated the 2011 democratic revolts in the Arab world. Rouhani and Zarif thus tied Iran’s online image with 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 exchange for halting 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, foreign diplomats descended on Tehran, eager to explore new opportunities for trade and commerce.

Iran's outgoing President Hassan Rouhani meets with Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran June 19, 2021. (credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENT WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Iran's outgoing President Hassan Rouhani meets with Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran June 19, 2021. (credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENT WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Yet the Iran deal did not survive the tenure of US president Donald Trump, who exited the deal, which led to its collapse. Iran’s great experiment with Western diplomacy proved a failure, and its citizens learned that international accords are subject to the whims of outlandish leaders.

Next, the pendulum swung as Iran 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 Twitter activities suggests that the charm offensive is over. Tweets by the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, 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 foreign minister seems to adopt a dual rhetoric when discussing the Vienna talks.

On the one hand, he asserts that Iran is ready to finalize an agreement; that it is willing to engage with other nations on the basis of mutual respect, and that the main hurdle facing negotiators is the language of the accord and not its essence.

On the other hand, the foreign minister demands that Iran be respected as an equal partner; that the US cease the expansion of financial sanctions, and that world powers acknowledge Iran’s national security interests.

In one tweet, the minister wrote that Iran is “carefully watching” the actions of President Joe Biden, who speaks of the need for diplomacy but acts against Iranian interests.

In another, the foreign minister lambasted European diplomats for politicizing the negotiations and derailing them.

This is a far more assertive online tone than that employed by former foreign minister Javad Zarif, whose Twitter profile often showcased smiles and warm exchanges with American negotiators.

THE SECOND issue frequently mentioned by the Iranian foreign minister is Iran’s hopes of establishing warm and friendly relations with its neighbors, 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 Tehran.

These tweets constitute a signal sent to negotiators in Vienna, a signal that states that world powers will require Iran’s cooperation if they are to avert future crises in the region. In these tweets, Iran is not as charming as it is commanding.

The Iranian foreign minister now also uses Twitter to emphasize Iran’s growing international profile. Tweets published by the foreign minister suggest that Iran is no pariah. On Twitter, the foreign minister frequently engages with Western nations such as the UK, or global powers such as Russia. Images shared on Twitter suggest that Iran was even the “belle of the ball” at the recent UN General Assembly, as Iran’s foreign minister held meetings with counterparts from Spain, Ireland, Belarus, Venezuela, Ireland and more.

These tweets may also be an important signal sent by Iran to the negotiators in Vienna according to which Iran is not as isolated as it was in 2015, and, as such, it is not desperate to reach a new deal.

Finally, the Iranian foreign minister has published several tweets deliberately highlighting disagreements with world powers. In one such tweet, the Iranian foreign minister “denounced” the EU, “condemned” the US and rebuked the UK. In other tweets, the foreign minister accused European countries of trampling on the rights of Palestinians and distorting facts regarding the oppression of Palestinians.

These tweets are more than just signals or press releases. The Twitter activity of diplomats can offer unique insight into nations’ policy goals and foreign policy shifts. The Iranian foreign minister is using Twitter to emphasize that Iran is no longer motivated by a desire to join the international community or enhance the prosperity of its citizens. Rather, Iran is negotiating from a position of strength. It is a confident world power, one that has many allies and one that is not afraid to escalate tensions with other, powerful nations.

These all translate into a firmer Iranian position in the negotiations taking place in Vienna, and a diminished willingness to oblige the international community.

The charm offensive is over. All that remains is an offensive.

The writer is a digital diplomacy scholar at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group.