If Twitter suffers at the hands of misogynist bigots, it seems to have found redemption in offering insights into otherwise opaque political regimes. A glance at the English language feed of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is enough to raise even a sceptical eyebrow. Just the other day, a sudden announcement of progress took the UK Foreign Office completely by surprise:
“Tehran has responded positively to UK’s request. President Rouhani’s meeting w/WilliamJHague on the sidelines of UNGA has been confirmed”
It hadn’t been, and the tweet was the first that anyone – including London – had heard about the UK requesting an audience with the Iranian President. It garnered a polite reply from the FCO, expressing their delight at positive steps, but gently suggesting that Twitter might not be the best place to start. International news agencies went wild when it appeared that Rouhani had even tweeted his blessings to Jews on Rosh Hashanah – though the consensus remains that the account was faked.
Twitter fraud aside, there can be little doubt about the reality of a renewed charm offensive from Tehran, which has seen the language of diplomacy and peace-building trumpeted ad nauseum toward anyone who will listen. Experts talk of a broader picture of reconciliation, with the new Iranian administration on the path to re-establishing diplomatic links with the West and making crucial headway on nuclear proliferation.
The sunny language seems to be reciprocated. Asked in a recent television interview about the state of relations between the two administrations, President Barack Obama confirmed that he and Rouhani had exchanged letters, and “reached out” to one another through diplomatic channels. He also signalled a willingness to hold bilateral talks with Iranian officials at the UN General Assembly next week, provided certain conditions were met by Tehran – a position which constituted one of his 2008 campaign pledges. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was perhaps a little more cautious: “It’s possible, but it’s always been possible”, he said during a regular briefing to reporters. The change of tone in the Iranians’ rhetoric is thus certainly welcome, but “actions are more important than words.”
Sources vary as to what, realistically, those actions might be. Iran currently has around 18,000 centrifuges at various sites; Rouhani has repeatedly hinted that he would be amenable to increasing the transparency of their operation, in line with IAEA protocols, provided sanctions were lifted and a fully functioning nuclear energy programme was permitted. The heavily protected subterranean facility at Qom seems beyond negotiation, but sources close to the Iranian administration have suggested that other establishments – the Natanz facility, for example – could fall within the parameters of a potential deal. Part of the problem is the different demands placed on Iran’s regime by its rivals. Whilst US officials hint that they would be content with a reduced Iranian nuclear capacity subjected to intensive international scrutiny, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu stated last week that his focus was on “really stopping the [Iranian] nuclear program” through halting all uranium enrichment, confiscating enriched stockpiles, closing Qom and destroying its plutonium reactor.
Thus, a number of different messages constitute a complex conversation. It’s very tempting to see the latest wave of Twitter-happy diplomacy as a clear representation of reformed characters: Rouhani, the new and bold leader, open to the West and determined to end the crippling sanctions on his country; Obama, the President who ‘gets’ political Islam and can repair the diplomatic damage of Bush-era neo-conservatism; Netanyahu, the uncompromising protector of an endangered and threatened state. But such an understanding would be caricature. The reality within Iran is far more nuanced – and that makes the recent tweets, whether real or not, all the more important.
It is a widely known secret that at the heart of the Iranian administration is a struggle for power. A superficially democratic state with theocratic foundations, Iran has long harboured an internal tension between the tenets of political Islam and the trappings of liberal democracy. If the 1979 Revolution consolidated the position of the former, the necessities of a 21st century globalised world have produced people like Hassan Rouhani, who see political pragmatism as the sine qua non of modern state survival. Whilst it is true that a recent speech by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stressed support for “correct diplomacy”, there should be no doubt that elements of Iran’s clerical elite have Rouhani’s hands tied. Several key government departments are headed by Khamenei’s henchmen – allocations beyond the limits of the negotiating table, and the Revolutionary Guard remains a powerful and intentionally necessary piece of the political jigsaw.
This, surely, is not wholly dissimilar to the situation faced by the former President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. Though a pragmatist by nature, the increasingly destabilising influence of Salafist conservatism, combined with the countervailing pull of newly vocal liberal constituencies, reduced his administration to ineffective flip-flopping. The resulting rhetoric was unnerving and unpredictable – and, indeed, unpalatable to the Egyptian military. Rouhani doesn’t face a swell of popular revolution. But he does suffer from the pull of two diametrically opposite reactions to Iran’s international isolation. His pragmatism immediately contrasts his leadership with that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the extent to which his charisma alone can shift the political landscape seems altogether less than certain.
In this context, it might just be possible to see something as innocuous as an overzealous – and quite possibly forged – tweet as a revealing insight into Iran’s inner elite. It seems little coincidence that some of Rouhani’s most encouraging sentiments have been articulated in the English language; they are clearly intended for audiences beyond circles in Tehran. With his hands at least partially tied at home, and international pressure mounting, reaching for Twitter seems like an invitation for the West to do more, or even a cry for help. But more than that, Rouhani (or whoever his phantom tweeter might be) could even be trying to change the very realities he must face. Reaching out unexpectedly to the West and establishing diplomatic channels over the heads of his conservative masters might just be the most effective way to sweep the ground from under the feet of his opponents. Thus, the occasional hashtag and cosy sentiment remain a somewhat unreliable position placement of the Iranian presidency, let alone diplomatic progress. But the arrival of such matters on Twitter, and the extensive projection of inviting statements across the internet probably do tell us a great deal about the frustration brewing in the corridors of Tehran. Expect a fair few trending headlines from ‘Rouhani’ yet.