An Opportunity in Iran
Iran's elections last Friday and their dramatic aftermath
provided the Obama Administration a unique opportunity to put into
action key elements of the government's public diplomacy strategy.
Unfortunately, as President Obama has carefully positioned himself
on the fence between the alleged winner, President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, and the candidate supported by Iran's hundreds of
thousands of protestors, Hossein Mousavi, the message from the U.S.
government has been muted.
While Web 2.0 technology has the potential to play a role
similar to that played by fax machines in the Solidarity uprising
in Poland in the 1980s and cell phones in Ukraine's Orange
Revolution, America has done too little to support Iran's
widespread and growing democracy movement. A golden opportunity to
reach out to a population trapped in a positively medieval
political system is being missed.
So far, U.S. government outreach has been limited to the State
Department's revelation that it requested that the social Web site
Twitter postpone its scheduled maintenance operation in the days
after the election as protesting Iranians were relying heavily on
its service to communicate--causing some to suggest that these
protests could end up being called the Twitter Revolution.
Undoubtedly, this action was important, but given the resources of
the U.S. government, it was hardly proactive.
Other U.S. Government-Funded Media
The Internet is not, of course, the only means through which the
U.S. government can reach out to foreign populations such as that
of Iran. However, the record is spotty on other fronts as well. On
the plus side, Radio Free Europe is doing yeoman's work
broadcasting 24 hours a day into Iran in Farsi through its service
surrogate Radio Farda, providing critical information from the
outside world for embattled Iranians listening on short wave radio.
Operating as a surrogate service, Radio Farda provides a platform
for Iranian exile journalists to broadcast back into their country
with otherwise censored information.
Under severe budget constraints, Voice of America (VOA)--whose
mandate is to provide both the news and an American perspective on
world events--recently closed down its Radio Farsi service along
with a number of other critically important language services, such
as those in Russian and Georgian. Needless to say, these cuts did
not send positive signals about American engagement in countries
like Russia and Iran, where free media are under pressure.
Television in Farsi is still being broadcast from VOA
headquarters, but it is being blocked on the Internet by the
Iranian government, which clamped down on Internet access the day
after the election and has restored only limited access since. TV
satellite dishes remain a target of the Iranian authorities, making
possession a highly dangerous proposition.
The Potential of the New Media
The fact that the Administration so far has chosen to take a
hands-off approach in Iran, where its engagement could make a real
difference, means that the potential of its tech-savvy approach to
public diplomacy is not being realized. Were these new technologies
being implemented efficiently, they could have significant
potential as an addition to other more traditional means of
In its first months in office, the Obama Administration
indicated that it is committed to using 21st-century technology in
various forms as an integral component of public diplomacy efforts.
In a similar fashion to strategies employed in last year's U.S.
presidential campaign, a wide variety of social networking and
communication mediums can be employed in order to maximize the
exposure and resonance of U.S. outreach attempts.
As part of this effort to make the U.S. brand more marketable
and accessible to foreign populations, Obama appointed Judith
McHale, former president/CEO of Discovery Communications, as
undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
The selection of McHale--who molded Discovery into a global giant
with 1.4 billion subscribers in 170 countries and 35 different
languages--speaks volumes about what form Obama envisions public
When asked about what made Discovery so effective in the global
market, McHale stressed the need for understanding target audiences
and conveying information in user-friendly ways. McHale has called
the then-new technologies a "game-changer." Indeed, they could
be if the political backbone is there.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Obama's commitment to
technology as a vital mechanism of public diplomacy and to McHale's
initiative was the mass distribution of the President's recent
speech in Cairo by means of various communication and networking
technologies. In an effort to disseminate Obama's call for improved
U.S.-Arab/Muslim relations to as large an audience as possible,
various government agencies used a variety of Internet
applications, including social networking sites, podcasts, and a
live Webcast on the White House's Web site. Additionally, updates
via text message were an extremely well-utilized tool, reaching
over 20,000 users worldwide.
The focus of this particular service, which was funded by the
State Department, was clearly on the citizens of nations abroad, as
it was unavailable to U.S. citizens. The text messages themselves
were available in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and eight other languages,
reaching over 200 countries. This effort to allow people to hear Obama
in their native tongue was not limited to text messages. Translated
versions of the speech in both text and video were available on
such sites as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace, as well as the
popular South Asia networking site Orkut.
An international discussion was created on Facebook, the social
networking site with over 20 million Arab users, by the White House
specifically for the event, and responses to the speech submitted
via text messages were compiled and later posted on
All of these efforts clearly have a vision and a strategy behind
them that could bear fruit in the 21st-century media environment.
Unfortunately, new media is, in its own way, as vulnerable as
traditional media to government interference in highly controlled
societies like Iran or China. Consequently, other new technologies
like cell phones and old technologies like short wave radio will
continue to play an important role.
The U.S. government should:
- Get off the fence and propose that if President Ahmadinejad
really believes he has won, he should allow recounts overseen by
international election observers;
- Tell the Iranian government to respect the free media and stop
interfering in television transmission and Internet access;
- Deploy all the Web 2.0 tools used in the promotion of the
President's Cairo speech to reach the Iranian public; and
- Restore funding to Voice of America, thereby allowing it to
resume its broadcasts in Farsi.
As demonstrated by the activities coinciding with Obama's
speech, the U.S. government has seized on the possibilities of
cutting-edge communication. Yet if the political will is not there
to project a positive message in defense of political freedom and
values that the United States has promoted for decades, it will
matter little how effectively this new media is used.
Dale is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for
Foreign Policy Studies and Deputy Director of the Davis Institute
for Foreign and Defense Studies of the Heritage Foundation. The web
memo was produced with the valuable assistance of Heritage intern