President Obama got his hand slapped when he famously stretched it out to the Iranian regime in the early days of his presidency. Now the U.S. State Department has, figuratively speaking, gotten its nose punched by the Iranian clenched fist as it tried to communicate with the Iranian people.
On December 6, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland announced the launch of Virtual Embassy Tehran, “a new and exciting engagement opportunity between the peoples of Iran and the United States.” On December 7, Iranian officials, losing little time, shut down the English and Farsi-language website. Iranian Internet users trying to access the site were greeted by a message stating that their browser could not display it or by a page put up by Iranian authorities suggesting other local websites.
It was entirely predictable that the Iranian regime would react this way. Iran is among the world’s most repressive regimes and has highly developed censorship mechanisms. “Freedom on the Net 2011,” published by Freedom House, calls it “the worst performer” on Internet freedom in the entire world. Iranian measures include controlling content, monitoring communication, and organizing extensive state propaganda websites, as well as threatening, arresting, and torturing cyber activists. Particularly following the June 2009 election, Tehran has been relentless in its effort to control digital and wirelesss communications.
All of this prompts the question: Why would the U.S. State Department even take the trouble to organize a “virtual embassy,” which as the website states is not actually an embassy but public diplomacy?
Since the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, the United States has had no embassy in Tehran and therefore little opportunity to make contact with Iranians. The content of the website is not in question. It contains appropriate information about the United States, scholarships, and student programs, and has a section countering disinformation about the United States circulating in the Iranian media. It also has a video clip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cheerfully greeting Iranian visitors to the site.
So, is this Virtual Embassy Tehran endeavor worth it—or a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars? As a matter of principle, U.S. public diplomacy policy should not be dictated by who is trying to block American content. Broadcasting to Cuba, China, North Korea, and Iran runs into jamming routinely. Yet when it comes to the airwaves, some broadcasts do get through despite the efforts of the jammers. The Internet is a different story. Here, technologically sophisticated dictatorships can pull the plug, and do, rendering the effort moot. Accordingly, one would have to conclude that in tight budgetary times, the State Department’s money and man hours could have been better invested. Additionally, the prompt Iranian response should offer caution to those who advocate moving U.S. international broadcasting increasingly to digital platforms. Why make enemy censorship easier?