London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The huge social media network Facebook, which was banned in Iran after anti-regime activists utilized it to help organize the 2009 protests, has an unexpected new member, namely Iranian Supreme Guide Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Friday, a new Facebook page entitled “Khamenei.ir” was launched, displaying photographs of the 73-year old cleric alongside speeches and pronouncements of the man who wields absolute power in Iran.
Although there are a number of Facebook pages claiming to represent the Iranian Supreme Guide, “Khamenei.ir” appears to be the Grand Ayatollah’s official Facebook account. The Facebook page had 9,694 “likes” at the time of publication, whilst the page was promoted via a Twitter account also purporting to be tied to the Iranian Supreme Guide. Many experts in Iranian affairs believe that this is truly Ayatollah Khamenei’s official page and is being run by staff in Khamenei’s office.
The two US-based social media sites, Facebook and Twitter, are officially blocked by Iran; however they are still commonly utilized by millions of Iranians who use special software to get around official government censorship.
Facebook and Twitter played a huge role in the 2009 protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, being utilized to help organize demonstrations and street protests of a scale that had not been seen in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. These protests, commonly called the Green Revolution, were severely suppressed by government forces and ended with opposition leadership being placed under house arrest.
Whilst in 2010, Iran’s state-run TV news channel denounced Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a “Zionist”, claiming that he financially rewarded Israelis who killed Palestinians.
The Khamenei Facebook page shared a picture of young Khamenei alongside founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, taken in the early 1960s. The Facebook page reportedly shares a similar tone, style and content with other social network accounts devoted to disseminating Khamenei’s message, including Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as an official “Khamenei.ir” website that is published in 13 languages.
Experts on Iranian affairs have stressed that despite the official Iranian ban on social media networks, Tehran is keen to use them to spread their message and world view to a global audience.
For his part, Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst at CNA, a US-based research organization, told Reuters “social media gives the regime leadership another medium of communication, one that can share their message with a younger and far more international demographic.”
Iran has been locked in a decade-long dispute with the West over its nuclear program. Washington and Europe suspect Tehran is seeking to develop a nuclear bomb, something that the Iranian government has repeatedly denied. The Syrian crisis is also another issue of contention between Iran and the West, as well as between Tehran and its neighboring Arab states.
Iranian authorities have also claimed to be seeking to build a national intranet; something skeptics believe is a way to further control the Iranian people’s access to the internet for fear that this could be employed once more to help organize mass protests and demonstrations in the same manner as the 2009 experience.