While full diplomatic relations with Iran remain a distant dream of the Obama administration, a small clutch of American officials have spent the past three years quietly building a “Virtual U.S. Embassy Tehran” that now boasts more than a half-million Facebook fans and a digital footprint that sources say is read even by hard-liners in the Islamic republic.
Manned by a single career diplomat and three contractors inside State Department headquarters in Washington, the effort has grown since its 2011 inception to include multiple blogs, Instagram, Google Plus and Twitter accounts, as well as the Farsi-language Facebook page.
The content is unquestionably pro-U.S., but State Department officials assert that their mission is less about projecting propaganda than simply trying to sustain an interactive relationship with Iranian citizens online before the real-world relationship can begin.
“Our target is to have direct U.S. government-to-Iranian people communication,” said one official, who agreed to speak candidly about the mission on the condition of anonymity. “The whole idea at the end of the day is that we are the official U.S. government portal for Iranians.”
The vast majority of what gets posted is benign — such as short video interviews with successful Iranian-Americans and profiles of the Iranian men’s volleyball team’s visit to the U.S. last week — but Iranian authorities undoubtedly would deem some content controversial.
The main website, for instance, includes a regularly updated “Faces of Iran” portal that highlights cases of “citizens unjustly imprisoned” by the regime.
The U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been shuttered since 1979 when Iranian radicals took 52 American diplomats hostage for more than a year, so the virtual embassy’s main page includes basic information with guidance on such consular matters as how an Iranian citizen or student might apply for a visa to the U.S.
Evading the censors
U.S. officials say they are most excited about the social media facet.
“We were getting a lot of private messages for a while via Facebook from Iranians who don’t trust their own government,” said the official who spoke with The Times. “They were asking us, ‘Is this real? Is this really the U.S. government? Can I trust you guys?’ And we would write back and say, ‘Yes, it’s us, you can trust that this is really the U.S. government.’”
The strategy appears to be working. As of this week, the virtual embassy’s Facebook page had 510,245 fans — a 600 percent increase over the roughly 85,000 “likes” the page garnered during its first year in 2012.
Although Facebook, like many other Western websites, is blocked by the Iranian government, U.S. officials say they have reliable evidence that hundreds of thousands of Iranians are able to access the page by using illegal virtual proxy networks that circumvent Tehran’s censors.
“We can see internally that our users claiming to be inside Iran are actually in Iran,” said the official who spoke with The Times. “We believe that over half of the users are actually physically inside the country.”
Iran, with a population of 76 million, has the most Internet users of any country in the region. An estimated 40 percent of Iranian households have Internet access — a rate far above those of many Sunni Arab rivals such as Saudi Arabia.
Proof that the page is viewable in Tehran also comes from the fact that Iranian government propagandists regularly copy State Department-issued photos from it and republish them on hard-line state media websites.
“They steal our stuff,” said the official. “We’ve had photos of [Secretary of State John F. Kerry] meeting with the Iranian foreign minister that we put up on our Facebook page with a Farsi language title, and all of a sudden that’s the actual picture that an Iranian hard-line newspaper is using.
“It’s one kind of audience that we didn’t really think about when we started, but when we see that now, we’re like, ‘OK, awesome. Go ahead and steal our picture.’”
Not a real ‘embassy’
A spokesman for the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs — known in diplomatic speak as the “Iran desk” — said the virtual embassy’s activities are no different from social media pursuits of any U.S. embassy that is actually physically located in a foreign nation.
“Just like every other website and social media operation of all of our overseas embassies, we provide a mix of policy messages, cultural content, information about studying in the U.S., instructions on visa application procedures and more,” said Sam Werberg, the Office of Iranian Affairs’ press and public diplomacy officer. “The main difference is that, in the absence of diplomatic relations with Iran and without any physical presence there, we did it all from Washington.”
Mr. Werberg said a core focus of the operation is to keep “our content fresh and interesting to our Iranian audiences” but that the virtual embassy plays a key role in disseminating official U.S. government views toward sensitive issues such as the high-stakes nuclear talks involving Iran, Washington and other world powers.
“We have found throughout the nuclear talks that it has been very useful to have a platform where we can explain our policy positions directly to the Iranian people,” he said. “Whether or not we are able to reach a final deal over Iran’s nuclear program, this platform will remain an important tool for us to reach the Iranian people directly.”
Some analysts see the creation of the virtual embassy as an essential first step toward what could eventually grow into a full-fledged diplomatic mission in Iran that even involves the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
“Having the virtual embassy in place, I think, serves as a foundation from which more positive momentum and potentially an interest section, or a consulate or an embassy in the future — later on down the line after a potential deal is reached, for instance — could grow,” said Reza Marashi, the director of research at the National Iranian American Council.
“As the old adage goes, you’ve got crawl before you walk and I think the virtual embassy is a good example of that,” said Mr. Marashi, who spent four years working in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs.
A Rice idea
Although Obama administration officials have expanded the initiative, the creation of the Office of Iranian Affairs inside the State Department was spearheaded by Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
The office was created in 2006 by Ms. Rice and then Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who told an audience on his retirement two years later that the U.S. should “make a very strong effort to get to the negotiating table with Iran.”
Twelve State Department officials work in the office, and each is focused on a job that would be common in any U.S. diplomatic post — there is a consular affairs official, a political officer and an economics specialist.
The office is headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Leslie Tsou, but the officials caution against portraying Ms. Tsou as a kind of preliminary ambassador.
“We don’t have an ambassador because we don’t have an embassy,” the official who described the office said. “There’s really no official diplomatic lexicon for what we’re doing.”