The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars, researchers, practitioners and professionals from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.
In a clear act of public diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on BBC Persian this week to engage the network's Iranian audience on a range of issues regarding the state of relations between Iran and America. In an interview-format program, she tried to address some important issues raised by Iranians living either in Iran or outside the country. Throughout her remarks, she brought up one eye-catching idea, an American virtual embassy in Tehran, which could be regarded as the most recent initiative of the Obama administration to communicate with Iranians. Such a concept appears to be noble at first glance, especially when one acknowledges the fact that the United States has had no official embassy in Iran for more than three decades now. But there are some serious questions about the possibility and responsibility of such an embassy which, if not clarified, would downgrade the initiative into simply yet another international information program of the State Department.
The most burning question here is whether it would truly act as an embassy? It is the answer to this question which will show the potency of the U.S. virtual embassy in Iran. We should be aware that embassies are traditionally responsible for the three significant tasks of official representation, information gathering, and bilateral negotiations. That is, embassies are usually occupied by an ambassador officially representing his/her country; embassies are committed to information gathering and this happens mostly through direct/physical contacts with the host society in order to diminish chances of misperception; and that embassies are places where behind the door negotiations happen between officials of both nations during mostly face-to-face (i.e. physical) meetings in order to resolve problems of mutual concern. Now, the problem for the virtual embassy in Tehran is that the prospect of performing such duties is hardly foreseeable. There are a couple of reasons for that.
First, the fact that the U.S. virtual embassy in Iran is a virtual space, automatically hampers its capacity to engage in traditional/physical forms of information gathering thus making it almost impossible to capture the "local taste" of the host society. Sure, it could establish contact with some Iranians, but it would be similar to establishing contact with Iranians anywhere else on the internet (e.g., Facebook) which the U.S. government already does, and even in that case, the problem of physical presence still persists.
Second, the U.S. government could appoint a virtual ambassador to Tehran to represent the United States, but his abilities to engage in ambassadorial service will hardly go beyond lecturing as a public affairs officer. Engaging in behind-the-doors negotiations, the most important duty of an ambassador, will hardly be possible for the Tehran ambassador for two particular reasons; first, due to the currently hostile status of relations between Iran and America, no Iranian official will risk his political career by engaging an American official online, and even if an individual does so on their own, any negotiation will clearly be devoid of any legitimacy and executive guarantee; second, considering the highly sensitive nature of any negotiations with the United States, Iranian officials will be the most unwilling to use virtual networks, instead of physical face-to-face meetings, to discuss their grievances and issues with their American counterparts.
And third, while the virtual embassy could potentially make a breakthrough in the realm of handling consulate duties such as issuing visas for the Iranians, something that traditionally needs face-to-face interviews, it seems far from reality that consulate services will be provided online due to the security implications it might have for the U.S. government.
Such inevitable challenges and shortcomings threaten the initiative to be downgraded to a simple information operation. It certainly has its roots in the U.S. government's strong tendency to enhance its public diplomacy programs towards Iran by exploiting the potentials of the internet. The Obama administration has, in fact, used Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other networking devices to win the hearts and minds of Iranians. Secretary Clinton's American virtual embassy in Tehran, despite its glamorous name, appears to be yet another public diplomacy enterprise. If it fails to perform the traditional duties of an embassy, it would be very much like America.gov, a State Department project launched during the Bush administration but which soon failed to achieve its goals. It remains to be seen whether the American virtual embassy in Tehran will face the same music.
Tabby D. on October 27, 2011 @ 1:08 pm Excellent points, Javad. In fact, if Iran succeeds in buildings its 'hahal internet' in 2012, a planned national internet that would effectively cut off Iranians living in the IRI from global cyberspace, the virtual embassy initiative would have even more roadblocks than those that you acutely observe above. It's interesting to note that in the past decade,the regime's intense paranoia over Western "attacks" against Iran has shifted from concerns over hard power displays (brute force) to soft power initiatives, and foremost, the Western "attacks" via the internet. This explains why the regime has allocated $1 billion towards building such "protective" internet infrastructures.
Mohsen on October 28, 2011 @ 11:07 am What would be the final fate of this virtual embassy or its real functionality is not so important, since it cost nothing. The fact is that they are trying different ways to reach Iranians inside the country. If a sort of revolution happens in Iran (like Arab countries) they need to have a better reputation. They are preparing themselves for that moment.
MaryJ on October 28, 2011 @ 2:23 pm Javed, I won't address your main point / discussion, which is very interesting and thoughtful although I believe other viewpoints could also be supported.
Instead, I just would like to make a minor correction regarding your reference to America.gov as a failed initiative of the Bush administration.
Ever since the Internet came into being, the former USIA (via usia.gov) and subsequently State Department / IIP (via usinfo.state.gov followed by america.gov) has maintained a publicly accessible electronic library of documents, ranging from up-to-the-moment official statements to glossy photo magazines about sports in the U.S., with a great wealth of info in between. Earlier this year, responding to a changing media environment impacted heavily by social media, IIP modified the site into a kind of document warehouse that Embassies and Consulates use in posting links on their own public websites and Facebook pages.
Yes, some public diplomacy initiatives were launched in recent years to achieve specific goals, and not all of them succeeded as planned -- but I did want to point out that America.gov does not belong in this category. The documents made available through IIP's series of websites have been and continue to be a core resource of U.S. public diplomacy and public affairs efforts world wide.