Iran’s Electronic Curtain

The Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei makes his Nowruz address in the Iranian city of Mashhad.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

A new curtain has descended between the East and West. This time it’s electronic.

To commemorate the Persian New Year, called Nowruz, this week President Barack Obama delivered a YouTube message to the Iranian people.  In the message, Obama calls for the lifting of the “electronic curtain” that Tehran imposes.

The video comes on the heels of Tehran blocking the U.K. Foreign Service’s website.   The site launched March 14, and by March 17 Iranians could not access it. And it’s not the first time for such an incident. The Iranian government blocked the same site only three months ago.

Obama’s language carries interesting implications. The phrase clearly alludes to the “iron curtain” metaphor used during the Cold War. The analogy is that Tehran is rejecting outside information just as the Soviet Union did decades ago.

The comparison is strikingly appropriate given the relationship between Iran and the U.S. The message comes at a time of tension between the two countries, which Obama acknowledges at the onset. The U.S., along with allies in the European Union and Israel, has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful.

Obama does not elaborate on the conflict, but he does hint at it, saying “If the Iranian government pursues a responsible path, it will be welcomed once more among the community of nations, and the Iranian people will have greater opportunities to prosper.”

Will Obama’s message spark any change in Iran? That’s not so easy to predict. Obama stresses that the U.S. wants a dialogue with Iran. He also references the Arab Spring when saying the past year has proven that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” These are good steps.

However, according to the Voice of America, Iranians have received Obama’s previous Nowruz speeches with skepticism.  Obama has also been criticized for failing to support the Iranian opposition Green Movement of 2009, a move that continues to make his current efforts appear insincere.

In his message, Obama plugged the U.S. virtual embassy for Tehran, available in Persian and English.  Incidentally, this site was also blocked by Iranian authorities when it launched.

We have seen the challenges that the internet poses to governments around the world. Closing doors on the internet might be Tehran’s response to political tensions, or an attempt to tighten its grip on the population, or both. Regardless of the motive, the electronic curtain represents a major obstacle for online diplomacy

(The photo of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei is from Iran’s Press TV and is in the public domain.  To see President Obama’s message to Iran, please check below.)

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