In an August 29, 2013, NBCNews.com article entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks,” Robert Windrem, an investigative reporter for NBC News, reported on the online statements of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and other top Iranian leaders on the crisis in Syria. Windrem’s article focuses on the tone of Rouhani in his statements over a twenty-four hour period moving from condemning the use of chemical weapons to requesting the international community use prudence in resolving the Syrian crisis. He had Hooman Majd, author and Iran expert, analyze the statements. What is most interesting is Windrem’s coverage of Rouhani’s comments on Twitter and the fact that Rouhani has decided to use the social media service as a tool to communicate his views, in English! While Rouhani’s comments on Twitter stand as an official reaction of the Iranian government to the major issue of the day, they cannot be seen as windows into the thinking of Rouhani or the Iranian government as Windrem proffers. This is not to state conversely that Rouhani’s comments on Twitter should be considered de minimus. Rather, Rouhani’s use of Twitter as Iran’s president is in its nascent stage, as he only took office in August. His “tweets” have not yet become a reliable source to determine whether their text, tone, or nature reflect the desires, goals, any underlying meaning, and the united position of the Iranian government. For “greatcharlie.com,” Rouhani’s tweets make for an interesting case to follow. The examination of government tweets representing official positions permits us to develop and present our perspectives on a variety of issues in international affairs for our readers. That allows us to cover issues beyond those discussed in our blog posts. Before presenting any official comments through Twitter on greatcharlie.com, we engage in a vetting process to ensure messages represent official views and are not part of an effort to deceive or manipulate their audience. (This is not to imply that Iran would ever engage in such an effort through Rouhani’s tweets.)
Twitter is a free “microblogging” site that a growing number of national governments and government officials are using to present policies, approaches, and statements on issues and events internationally, given Twitter’s reach through the internet. They also use Twitter to reach their constituencies of their domestic audience. Launched in 2006, Twitter users send and receive brief messages, limited to 140 characters of text over the internet. Using the site requires the creation of a profile page, including a title or “handle.” Users can then send messages to those they desire to have as followers, or followers suggested by Twitter based on a user’s profile. Those messages called “tweets” can include web addresses or TinyURL (Uniform Resource Locator), a service that provides a short alias for long URL addresses. This allows followers to go to web sites or blogs for anything ranging from articles, editorials, blog posts, reports, documents, archives, photo galleries, YouTube videos, sound recordings, and television and radio programs.
Iranian Officials and Twitter
Iranian leaders who currently use Twitter to communicate their views in English include the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei (using the handle @khamenei_ir) and President Rouhani. (Who actually has two profiles and three handles: @President_Iran; @HassanRouhani; and, @HassanRouhani_) For his August 29th article, Windrem quoted tweets from the profile and handle: @HassanRouhani. While government leaders around the world use Twitter in this fashion, it is rather surprising to have Iranian leaders utilize this social media tool whose use US and other Western officials have mastered and whose tweets, as far as government officials go, dominate the service. Apparently, Iranian officials believe there is enough room for them to make some headway on Twitter and eventually promote their views on urgent and important issues and Iranian interests in English to an audience equivalent to those of their foreign counterparts.
Rouhani’s tweets are really not directed at a domestic audience. Younger generations of Iranians are steeped in internet technology, well aware of all social media available, and typically have studied English in school. So, they may actually look at, learn from, and comment on their leaders’ tweets in English. However, older generations would be less likely to use Twitter, and less likely to be as fluent in English enough to read or fully comprehend the tweets meaning. Attempting to reach either audience using tweets in English would be a poor use of the tool. Western foreign and defense policymakers and decision makers, political and business leaders, policy scholars, academics, and journalists are unmistakably the target of Rouhani’s English communications, including those sent on Twitter, remains. It is plus whenever Rouhani manages to reach an audience of ordinary citizens in the West.
True, Rouhani’s tweets are from profiles and handles in their names. However, it would be more than surprising to discover that the Iranian president would actually devote any time to composing tweets given the multitude of issues that require his time, attention, and energy daily. His tweets are not mundane comments about events, daily activities, or personal stories. While not earth shattering or controversial in any way so far, Rouhani’s tweets are still official statements of the Iranian government’s positions on issues in international affairs that reach a global audience, particularly Rouhani’s counterparts in Western capitals. For that reason, despite Rouhani’s accepted command of English, his tweets are logically drafted by scholars and experts, fluent in English on his staff. They should be viewed as such, and not a personal effort by the Iranian president. Drafting a concise official tweet, effective enough to communicate the desired comment in 140 characters, practically requires a newspaper editor’s hand. Rouhani would be invested in his staff’s Twitter efforts to the extent that tweets they promulgate are based on his concepts and intent for the conduct of Iranian foreign and defense policies. Those ideas can only come from Iran’s most senior leaders. It is the political perspectives and goals of the Iranian leaders’ upon which policies and approaches of the Islamic republic are formulated.
Although Rouhani’s tweets are produced by his staff, it is very conceivable that his office would also very likely consult with his ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence and security over communications on an issue, especially when specific content is of absolute importance. Ministers, and subsequently their own staffs, could possibly assist in the drafting of a specific tweet or set of tweets. Rouhani selected his cabinet ministers because of their expertise and capabilities, and his sense that with them he could establish a rapport and from them he would receive the best advice available on issues. There would be little reason to exclude their input from important communications of Iranian policy.
It would be a goal of staff scholars and experts when crafting tweets to avoid telegraphing Iran’s moves or leak any classified information or plans of the Iranian republic over Twitter. Searching for such gems of information from Iranian officials’ tweets would be a fool’s errand. Utilization of Rouhani’s tweets as an intelligence tool for efforts and manipulation or deception would also be very unlikely. Rouhani’s credibility would be at stake as the tweets, profiles, and handles are in his name. While an Iranian patriot, undoubtedly willing to sacrifice for the Islamic republic, Rouhani would not want to engage in that practice.
Any signs of disunity in thinking within the Iranian government would hardly be found on Twitter because the Supreme Leader and the president are the only officials with English Twitter profiles. The ministries and ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Intelligence and Security do not have such profiles, although that situation could change. While their comments may at times have a stronger tone, they actually represent the logical application of the concept of force and diplomacy to cope with opponents of the regime. Iran’s military capabilities and financial wherewithal aside, the ability to assure that Iran’s can promote and protect its interests, in Iran’s view, requires declarations of Iran’s determination to defend those interests. Those expressions serve to some degree, to deter threats but are for the most part, genuine avowals of Iran’s willingness to fight. (Albeit, some military officials could accomplish that task using “:less-passionate” statements.)
The unlikelihood that Rouhani’s tweets were drafted by them is actually evinced in the examples of his tweets provided by Windrem in his NBCNews.com article. Windrem points to Rouhani’s August 27, 2013, tweet, which stated: “As UN resumes its investigation, President #Rouhani calls on international community to show prudence over Syrian crisis and observe international law.” This tweet, allegedly drafted by Rouhani, has him referring to himself as “President Rouhani,” in third person. For Rouhani to refer to himself in this manner would be rather unusual. This statement, while reflecting Rouhani’s thinking, was clearly drafted by someone other than Rouhani. Interestingly, while tweets are sent under Rouhani’s profiles and handles, the Iranian president’s office has not given notice or any definitive statement indicating that he prepares his own tweets. That would certainly be newsworthy information.
Twitter’s 140 character limit for messages normally requires most English speaking users to abbreviate outside of accepted English grammar rules. However, in his messages, there is evidence non-native English speakers drafted the text. Rouhani’s tweets are laced with “inter language grammar,” normally observed in the writing of non-native speakers of English (or any language for that matter). Since that is the case, it is clear that the tweets from the Iranian president presented in Windrem’s article could represent an effort at deception or manipulation by the Ministry of the Intelligence and Security. If the Ministry of Intelligence and Security were preparing tweets, its officers would have insisted upon using native English speakers, perhaps from the US, Canada, or Britain, who were expert in preparing concise messages on Twitter. That would serve to avoid misstatements and ambiguities in the communications.
Tweets as Targets for Examination
What really makes Rouhani’s tweets a real target for examination is the almost ubiquitous desire among Western foreign and defense policymakers and decision makers, political and business leaders, policy scholars, academics, and journalists to identify every statement and action he takes as an effort to approach the West. It is what led Windrem’s intriguing choice to examine Rouhani’s tweets. The search for signs that a comprehensive compromise might be found on the nuclear issue and others between Iran and the West, appears akin to a virtual quest for the Western foreign policy “Holy Grail.” Yet, that search maybe for naught. Rouhani and his cabinet seek to bring Western leaders to their views and positions, and not, themselves, be influenced. For Iran, the possibility of a compromise would be seen only when signs exist that Western leaders are willing to alter their views on issues concerning Iran.
When the situation in Syria reached crisis level with the use of chemical weapons, US National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, was invariably swamped by the demands of organizing reports, meetings, briefings, travel, visits to Congress, and other important national security policy issues unrelated to Syria. Rice would hardly have the time or opportunity to compose concise and effective messages sent under her handle and profile: @Ambassador Rice. Undoubtedly, a staff member from Rice’s office, perhaps the National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden or her staff, prepared Rice’s tweets. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, tweets, but his tweets, usually very general statements on policy, are sent from the rather generic Department of State profile: @StateDept. Perhaps every US official has a Twitter profile, managed by staff. In this respect, methods used by Iranian officials to prepare and send tweets would be little different from methods used by US officials.
There is certainly potential for Rouhani’s tweets to develop into a significant resource for understanding his thinking and concepts, and Iranian government policies and approaches in international affairs. Detractors of the Iranian government would claim that disunity exists in Iranian policymaking to such a degree that Iran’s official statements are never definitive, and should not be given consideration. However, Rouhani’s tweets could indeed become part of a process of establishing normalcy with regard to Iran’s presentation of its positions. Through Twitter, Rouhani could potentially provide carefully crafted, official statements of such quality and quantity as to help eliminate ambiguities or doubts of Iran’s position on issues. (Of course, dialogue is the best way to build greater confidence, eliminate ambiguities about positions, and prevent further guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.) It would be ideal for Iran if Rouhani’s tweets supported movement in Western officials’ thinking from mutual suspicion toward the direction of mutual trust, and set the stage for constructive dialogue. Potentially, his tweets could help to encourage the West to engage in, what Iran would consider, a fair and respectful dialogue, in which goals and interests are exchanged. That may lead to greater steps relevant to reaching agreements.