Can Iran Change its Image, One Tweet at a Time?

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Sept. 5 2013 11:45 AM

Iran’s Social Media Offensive

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Iran's President Hasan Rowhani smiles as he adresses his first news conference since taking office, in Tehran, on August 6, 2013.

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani garnered quite a bit of attention yesterday for this Rosh Hashanah message: 

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Whether you consider it sincere or not, this is at the very least a welcome contrast from Rouhani’s predecessor.

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Yesterday also saw Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—whose preferred medium so far has been Facebook—start an English-language Twitter feed. Rouhani ribbed his foreign minister, saying he’s “still learning abt tweeting.”

The two also seem willing to engage with critics. Zarif engaged in this back and forth with Christine Pelosi—Democratic Party activist and daughter of the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—in which he also took a short at former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

The English-language social media offensive seems like an effort by Iran’s new administration to present a newer, milder face to the world. Zarif’s bio identifies him as a “Uni of Denver alum” for instance. Rouhani has presented his government as a supporter of #GenderEquality.

The new tone might be expected from Rouhani’s administration—he’s perceived as a moderate by Iranian standards and made engagement with the international community a theme of his election campaign. But in terms of social media strategy, Rouhani and Zarif might actually be taking their cues from the Supreme Leader. 

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might not seem like the most with-it guy, but on Twitter, he—or whoever is running his English-language feed—has tended toward the wonky, such as this infographic on American electoral college system…

…or the whimsical, such as this extended reflection on the physical wellbeing of young Iranians:

When I was young student of Islamic school, my father wasn't eager to let me go to gym …
... because it was common belief that Islamic students shouldn't go to gym | Ayatollah #Khamenei #Sport #Football #Iran #فوتبال
But a friend of my father, said that you must let your son to do sports, that was then my father chose to do so | #Iran #football #فوتبال
I used to do #sport & I continue to do so, but I see #young ppl aren't that serious about sports which is totally wrong | #Iran #فوتبال
Sometimes I go mountain #climbing around #Tehran & notice number of young ppl r few regarding Tehran's population...
... I feel sad that why our young people are not benefiting from such a beautiful nature | Ayatollah #Khamenei #Sport #Iran

None of this is to say that anything significant will necessarily change in regards to Iran’s relationship with the United States or Israel, or the government’s treatment of women and religious minorities, but there does seem like there’s a concerted effort to send a message the West that this isn’t your father’s Islamic Republic. 

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