Iran Cyber Front: Khamenei likes Facebook

On 13 December 2013, the official website of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, created a community page on Facebook. This has caused quite a stir in the Western media, which took great interest in this action given the Islamic Republic of Iran’s animosity toward Western online social networks. However, this was not the Iranian supreme leader’s first foray into cyberspace or social networks. Alongside the official website, which is regularly updated and available in 13 languages, appears to also maintain a Twitter and Instagram page; in fact the confirmation of the official status of the Facebook page came from the Twitter account.

As of the time of writing the Facebook page has 23,356 “likes”. Much of the content on the page is available in Farsi and well translated English and Arabic. Reactions to the creation of the Facebook page have been mixed. A large percentage of those who have ‘liked’ the page appear to be non-Iranian Khamenei supporters, many of whom may be from Shiite communities throughout the Muslim world. Another large segment of those who have ‘liked’ the page appear to be Iranian proponents and opponents of Khamenei. The latter group has come to blows with Khamenei supporters on items posted on the page, and have attempted to create an atmosphere of dissent by posting jokes, swear words, and negative comments regarding Khamenei.

In response, it appears that the managers of the Facebook page have disabled the “wall” function and begun to systematically filtering comments, although there is often a delay between when comments are posted and when they are filtered. Interestingly, after being informed about the existence of the page on 17 December 2012, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland remarked: “I hadn’t seen that, but I’m going to go look for it right after we’re finished here. I’m interested to see what portrait he chose for himself and how many likes he has.”

The creation of the official Facebook page has raised some interesting questions by both proponents and especially opponents of the regime and Khamenei. Given that the Islamic Republic’s policy, particularly after the 2009-2010 Green Movement demonstrations, has been to ban websites and social networks such as Google and Facebook, why has Khamenei decided to create such a social network page? After all, it is not uncommon for regime officials to label websites and online social networks like Google and Facebook as tools of espionage and “soft war”. This awkward double standard has led some to ask whether the regime is considering changing its cyberspace policy, although especially in the lead up to the 2013 Iranian presidential election campaign this appears unlikely. Some opponents of Khamenei have hailed the creation of the page as an opportunity for greater transparency and contact with the public on the part of the supreme leader, while others view it as pure regime propaganda and have called for the page to be taken down.

When asked about the legality of membership to online social networks, the secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) Mehdi Akhavan-Behabadi declared that “Membership to social networks is not a crime, but by-passing filters in order to reach this content is a crime.” When asked about the government use of Western online social networks, Akhavan-Behabadi responded that the Facebook page is not the work of the regime but rather their supporters in the public at large. If the page works out in terms of rallying adherents of Khamenei and projecting the regime’s message, then there may be some formal acknowledgement of its official status at some point down the road. Otherwise, regime officials will likely stick to the position that the page was created by supporters of the regime and not paid agents of the regime itself.

Editor’s note: The regime has mixed feelings about cyberspace. On the one hand, because of the characteristics of cyberspace including anonymity, low cost of entry, and asymmetries in vulnerability, the regime is able to use this domain to project power (for example through cyber attacks) without the same consequences it would incur if it made attacks on the ground, sea, or air. However, these very same characteristics make the regime vulnerable to cyber attacks, and perhaps more important its own citizens. Online social networks can often be efficient tools for mobilizing people on a large scale, and the regime fears the ways in which this functionality can be used against it, as for example happened during the ill-fated Green Movement demonstrations.

As such, the regime appears to be fine-tuning its cyber strategy in order to minimize the risks posed by cyberspace while maximizing the opportunities. For example, by creating the national information network, the regime both reduces its vulnerability to foreign-based cyber attacks and enhancing its ability to monitor its own citizens. Could the creation of the Facebook page be part of the same strategy? It is difficult to overlook the extent to which the page may become a magnet for Khamenei opponents inside of Iran. However, the page may be intended to target regime and Khamenei supporters outside of Iran in Shiite communities around the world. In this sense, the page could be an attempt by the regime to project soft power for once rather than just be the target of it.