Few Virtues to “Virtual Embassy in Iran”

Virtual appeasement? Not really.

The U.S. has announced that it will be opening up a “virtual embassy” in Iran in order to facilitate American engagement with the Iranian people . . . at the same time Congress is trying to de-facilitate American engagement with Iranian officials and cripple the Iranian economy.

This administration has been putting greater focus on “public diplomacy” efforts — Hillary Clinton in particular. But at the risk of sounding trite, actions speak louder than words. And, writes Trevor Thrall at The National Interest, our words don’t carry all that much weight:

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.

I should note here that the virtual embassy is already being blocked by the Iranian government.

“We want all Iranians, especially the very large population of young people inside Iran, to see that the United States has deep respect for the Iranian people and its civilization,” said the U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs. But explicitly tying the virtual embassy in with sanctions against Iran — and yes, we have done just this — is probably not going to make #virtualembassy trend on Iranian Twitter accounts.

One way we could go about demonstrating this “respect” is by airing clips of the candidates from the Republican presidential debates — and by “candidates,” I mean “Ron Paul.” I do not think Iranians would get the same vibe from all the other Republican presidential hopefuls (or past presidential hopefuls — remember “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran“?).

With politicians like these, our public diplomacy would be better off having the American servicemen and women planning the airstrikes making videos for the site. Hell, put Bill O’Reilly on.

In all seriousness, though, almost any video we will put up on that site will only confirm Iranian perceptions that (I’m quoting Thrall again) “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” so long as our elected officials — and the intellectuals and lobbyists riding their coattails — bay for regime change.

(PS: When considering the efficacy of the virtual embassy model, please bear in mind that the State Department maintains a Gazan e-consulate.)

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.