Online Dialogue by Iran’s Political Factions Suggests More Similarities than Differences

Online Dialogue by Iran’s Political Factions Suggests More Similarities than Differences

Zarif withdrew his resignation less that two days after the announcement, following Rouhani’s refusal to accept it. The brief crisis seemingly ended with some sort of resolution between the two feuding factions, with Rouhani’s letter to Zarif citing an effusive expression of support by the supreme leader. According to some observers, this represents a victory for the “moderate” faction over the hardliners. But others dispute this notion, suggesting either that the incident was little more than political theater or that the resolution was based in large part on Khamenei’s acknowledgement of the administration’s deference to his will.

The Bloomberg report took no explicit position on this matter, but it did seem to underscore some of the ways in which the relationship between the competing factions is more nuanced and perhaps less combative than some would think. The report points to the fact that when Zarif made his announcement on Monday, he used Instagram to do it. Instagram is the last major social media platform to avoid a ban in the Islamic Republic even though the Rouhani administration promised to pursue an expansion in internet and press freedoms. But once the controversy over the foreign minister’s announcement began, it played out on both Instagram and Twitter, which was banned in 2009, following the Green Movement protests.

Tweets and Instagram posts came from both sides of Iran’s political divide, underlining the fact that while few officials have seriously challenged the government’s control over social media, fewer still have determined that it applies to them in their positions. Bloomberg noted that Supreme Leader Khamenei has decried social media as a tool used to propagate the “immoral” ideologies of foreign enemies, but the report then went on to argue that “the Zarif resignation saga is testament to the impossibility of dictating limits to online access” in a country where social media has become a fact of life in spite of the persistence of government restrictions.

So while it may be tempting for those who are optimistic about internal moderation of the Iranian regime to regard Zarif’s Instagram announcement as a sign of support for the last remaining legal social media platform, it may be more accurate to say that this is just a reflection of mundane reality in Iranian society. By extension, it would perhaps be overly optimistic to conclude that Zarif’s “victory” in the resignation saga is a precursor to progress in the area of “moderate” defenses of online access.

Up until now, all efforts by officials in the Rouhani administration to promote free usage of internet platforms have met with condemnation and obstruction by hardline figures. Perhaps just as important is the fact that such efforts have been few and far between, and have not come from the most prominent officials, such as Zarif or Rouhani himself. As EA Worldview reported on Monday, the administration’s natural leader point man on the issue of internet restrictions, Communications and Information Technology Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, is currently facing criminal charges in retaliation for his failure to follow judicial orders regarding tighter controls.

EA Worldview describes the charge of “internet espionage” as “the latest shot in an ongoing battle between the Rouhani Government, which wants to open up Iran’s communications and cultural space, and hardliners who blame dissident Iranians and foreign actors with attempts to undermine the regime.” But neither this report nor others on the same topic provide much evidence of the Rouhani administration as a whole defending Azari Jahromi or his efforts to, for instance, develop 5G communications throughout the Islamic Republic.

The communication minister’s potential ouster therefore stands in direct contrast to the retention of the foreign minister in his position. The president’s vigorous defense of Javad Zarif, along with the supreme leader’s acceptance of that defense, raises questions about why he would be persuaded to withdraw his resignation at the same time that another official with more openly reformist goals is being pressured to submit his. One likely answer to this question is that Zarif’s actions have not actually abutted against those of hardline authorities, who are similarly willing to accept things like social media access when they serve the interests of the regime, and to reject them on the same basis.