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Diplomacy and the Iranian Blogosphere

Yesterday, the Boston Globe ran a piece on US-Iran relations. With all the news cycle obsession over a possible military conflict, this may seem like nothing new. The unique twist, however, is that instead of focusing on outspoken president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the article follows the considerably more complex relationship between bloggers, both Iranian and American, in dialogue with each other.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s diplomatic relationship with the United States has been tense, to say the least. Publicly at least both governments have exhibited mutual distrust, if not downright hostility. Average people writing blogs in Iran, however, seem to think that if not rapprochement, at least some form of dialogue with the West could be healthy.

The Berkman Center has been interested in the Iranian blogosphere ever since we published a full-length quantitative report on it. One of our key findings was that, although Iran harasses and jails bloggers, the Iranian blogosphere itself is wide-ranging, tolerant of a surprising amount of dissent, and spread across numerous ideological persuasions. Contrary to popular perceptions about Iran and the internet, it is not just young democracy dissidents writing blogs; instead, there are distinct sectors of reformists (both expat and native), conservatives, Shi’a religious blogs and Persian poetry enthusiasts.

The upshot of this diversity is that it is, to a degree, democratic in character. It resembles (even with the inconsistent interference of authoritarianism) the vital social organism which generally makes up public communication in a democracy. Though speculative, the question of whether the nature of blogging is responsible for this is still worth asking.

When, as for blogs, there are low barriers (economic or ideological) to expression, a continuum of democratic discourse seems to have less difficulty cropping up. The wider and more ample these networks of individuals become, the less plausible it is that the government can contain or adequately filter them (unlike the old mass media model). In a sense, blogs distribute influence and, potentially, power.

The Globe piece highlights a particularly interesting development in all this. Despite the best efforts of Iranian censorship and a hostile American embargo, bloggers and internet users from both sides are communicating, exchanging information and ideas.

“People are relating to the Americans on the computer,” he [Farhad Ghorbani, a 24-year-old journalist] said. “We can chat. Regardless of the political views and what the politicians do, we want to have this kind of cultural relationship with the United States.”

As if in response, both governments have begun to copycat these techniques of more open exchange. Ahmadinejad writes a blog in which he periodically addresses Americans, and even the State Department has started organizing informal debates with Iranian officials on blogs.

Perhaps if this trend continues, the political divide between Iran and America can be broached by the internet instead of diplomats, by ideas instead of drums of war.

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3 Responses to “Diplomacy and the Iranian Blogosphere”

  1. sy Says:

    The amount of dissent tolerated is not actually surprising to those who follow Iran closely. If your lens is western MSM, then, yes, you will be surprised. What’s more, in the final years of Khatami’s presidency, after September 11, Iran very much tried for contact and discussion — ignored by the Bush administration — so it’s not quite right that both governments have been loath, as you say, to re-open diplomatic ties. In any case, I’m trying to figure out why you’re hedging in the paragraph beneath the graphic. Is the Persian language blogosphere democratic or not? If not, if, instead, it’s ‘too a degree,’ ‘resembles,’ etc., what’s missing?

  2. Chris Van Buren Says:

    Your first point is well taken. MSM and Iran is alarmist and reductive.

    I suppose what I meant to suggest in characterizing the blogosphere as “democratic in character” is that it is still under a decent amount of duress from state intimidation and blogger arrests (Mojtaba Saminejad was arrested for blogging about the arrests of other bloggers). Though less than expected (and certainly less compared to either Burma or China), Iran still filters sensitive political material, particularly sites by expats and reformists inside Iran.

    The whole system, like its government, is a strange hybrid of democratic and authoritarian elements. The latter undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the former. What its missing therefore is consistent openness and legal protection of speech.

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