Last week, the United States announced the creation of Virtual Embassy Tehran, an informational web site aimed at the Iranian public. According to Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, the site’s central purpose is to provide a bridge between the United States and the Iranian people. As the web site explains, “the absence of an American presence in Iran (since the 1979 hostage crisis) means we have little opportunity to make our voice heard to a broader Iranian audience.”
The site follows on the heels of Persian-language efforts by the State Department on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. State gets points for making an effort to keep up with the times and putting the web and social media to work for the cause of public diplomacy. And though the site itself is quite bland and uninspiring, there is certainly nothing wrong with making it easier for world publics to learn about the United States.
Excitement over the Internet aside, however, the Virtual Embassy Tehran is a product of the same failed public diplomacy paradigm that the United States has pursued since 9/11. As such, it reflects the persistent inability of the U.S. government to recognize the basic tenets of the modern global communications landscape and the unwillingness of officials to acknowledge the limits of persuasion.
Campaigns like Virtual Embassy Tehran reflect on outmoded conception of the global public sphere. Officials appear to think that the virtual embassy (along with similar efforts in the region such as Radio Farda, Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra) will replicate the glory days of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. The theory is straightforward: the Iranian public is suffering from oppression and censorship at the hands of a totalitarian government. Starved for information about the world, Iranians will seek information from alternative sources. When they realize that the alternative sources (i.e. Virtual Embassy Tehran) provide more accurate and useful information than that available from their own government, Iranians will begin to trust those sources and turn to them in ever greater numbers. Eventually this will give the United States the ability to shape the marketplace of ideas in Iran.
During the Cold War, the United States did indeed have some success with Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. The circumstances, however, differed in three critical ways that made influence possible in the first case but unlikely if not impossible in the current case.
First, the global media system has become infinitely more dense and diverse. It is more difficult to make an impact. Soviet publics had no serious alternatives to the information provided by the United States. Iranians, on the other hand, have access to a myriad of Middle Eastern media outlets. The millions of Iranian households with illegal satellite dishes already have access to Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Al Manar, not to mention the BBC Persian channel and CNN International. An Iranian family with access to the web through a Virtual Private Network (the access mode of choice in oppressive regimes) has the entire world’s media at their fingertips. With so many voices competing for attention, the importance and potential influence of the virtual embassy is vastly less in the modern era than during the Cold War, or even what it would have been in 1979 when the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran.
Second, the United States is far from being a trusted source of information. Thus, it is not a compelling voice in the Iranian marketplace of ideas. All the research on effective communication from Aristotle’s Rhetoric onward highlights the importance of trust. During the Cold War, getting people whose nations had been conquered by the Soviets to trust the United States was not that difficult. Getting people in Iran today to trust the United States, however, is a different matter. Just because Iranians have issues with their government does not translate into trust of the Great Satan. A quick look at attitudes toward the United States around the Middle East (latest Pew Global Attitudes report here) suggests that the United States is not trusted enough to be a serious player in the Iranian public sphere (or that of any other Middle Eastern country). Studies of American presidential persuasion, for example, suggest that presidents with lower than 50 percent approval ratings can’t move the opinion needle even with their own public, much less abroad.
Third, the United States cannot convince Iranians with its words when its actions are speaking so loudly. During the Cold War the United States occupied the moral high ground relative to the Soviet Union, and its public diplomacy amplified that advantage. The United States spoke of freedom to publics that wanted to be free. But U.S. public diplomacy since 9/11 has been widely seen as self-serving rhetoric, a cover for unilateral efforts to pursue the war on terror and expand U.S. influence in the Middle East. Iranians may not like their current government, but that does not mean they approve of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.