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Iran’s Zarif under fire for silencing critics, journalists in Clubhouse room

Published: Updated:

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made an unannounced appearance in a virtual conversation on the audio-chat app Clubhouse on Wednesday where he addressed a range of topics, including the recent agreement with China, Iran-US relations, and the upcoming June presidential elections.

Zarif joined the conversation along with other officials, including Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, and addressed an audience of over 8,000 listeners, becoming the highest-ranking Iranian official yet to take part in a Clubhouse room.

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Clubhouse, launched in March 2020, has grown increasingly popular among Iranians both in and out of the country.

Most major social media platforms – including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – have been blocked in Iran for over a decade. But the clerical regime, which is notoriously wary of social media platforms, has not yet blocked Clubhouse despite its growing popularity among Iranians. This is likely due to the approaching presidential elections.

Zarif was not the first Iranian official to partake in discussions on Clubhouse. Over the past few days, several Iranian officials and politicians joined the discussions on the San Francisco-based app, including Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari-Jahromi and former Revolutionary Guards commander and Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, both of whom are potential candidates in the June elections.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al Arabiya English it is not surprising to see Iranian officials join Clubhouse.

“The flocking of Iranian officials like Zarif, who is also active on Twitter, comes as no surprise. It was a matter of time before spaces like Clubhouse where Iranians and others congregated was penetrated by the regime to push counter-narratives and spin,” Ben Taleblu said.

“There is a unique historical parallel here driving Zarif. In his memoir, with the benefit of hindsight, Zarif laments walking out on United Nations Security Council meetings during the Iran-Iraq War. The lesson was harshly learned. Since then, Zarif has used engagement and media outreach to push Iran’s narrative while impeding pressure and deflecting criticism,” he added.

Zarif on Clubhouse

Zarif’s presence on Clubhouse drew mixed reactions. Some hailed Iran’s top diplomat for his apparent willingness to engage with the public, while critics saw the move as part of a regime campaign aimed at encouraging voter participation for the upcoming elections.

Clubhouse “has become an unprecedented platform for exercising democracy in Iran,” Ali Vaez, Iran program director at the International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter, as Zarif was speaking on the app.

“I’ve met [Zarif] multiple times but this is just cool,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said in a now-deleted tweet.

Clubhouse has “rooms” which any user can join as a listener, but they cannot speak unless they are given permission by the room’s moderator or moderators.

The Clubhouse session Zarif entered was moderated by Farid Modarresi, an Iran-based journalist close to the self-described “reformist” or “moderate” camp, the same political camp to which Zarif belongs.

As Zarif was speaking, several Iranian journalists took to Twitter to say that their requests to speak were ignored.

“Many of my colleagues raised their hands but they were intentionally ignored,” Rana Rahimpour, presenter at BBC Persian, wrote on Twitter.

“The authorities in Iran refuse to talk to the BBC Persian Service which is in line with their policy of harassing BBC journalists and their families,” Rahmipour added.

Mahshid Hosseini, a journalist at London-based Manoto, a popular Persian-language channel among Iranians, tweeted: “Me and about 10 people I know have tried to go up and ask questions and they don't allow us.”

The Clubhouse room moderator later said in another room that Zarif agreed to join the discussion on the condition that opposition activists and journalists for foreign-based Persian-language media outlets not be permitted to speak.

The Iranian regime wants to “create sensation and an image of democracy as we are getting closer to the election,” Iranian activist and former BBC presenter Negin Shiraghaei wrote on Twitter.

“The stage was completely closed. None of the journalists from outside Iran (other than the New York Times’ own reporter and another journalist in the US with a close affiliation with the Islamic Republic of Iran) had a chance to ask any questions,” Shiraghaei wrote.

“All the people on the stage are affiliated with the Iranian government. Calling this a stage of ordinary Iranians is factually wrong,” she added.

Iran expert Vahid Yucesoy, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Montreal, told Al Arabiya English that Clubhouse’s rising popularity among Iranians “seems to have necessitated regime officials to express themselves and even give a semblance of democracy to Iranians through this application” ahead of the elections.

“Zarif’s presence on Clubhouse is an effort by them to appeal to the public, but it seems that they’re still under the impression that they can set the rules of the game. Little do they realize that by applying censorship and abdicating responsibility for their flaws, they’ve… created greater anger and frustration among Iranians,” Yucesoy added.

“Not letting critical voices speak will create further disenchantment and anger on the side of the population. There has been a lot of backlash not only against Zarif’s selective acceptance of questions, but also with the fact that only journalists with a track record of asking softball questions were admitted,” he said.

“From my distant impression of Clubhouse, the app is designed to create and link communities of concern based on the topic being discussed. But if engagement with these communities requires access or approval to speak, and in the case of Zarif, prevents dissident voices or foreign-based media from being heard, then it merely presents the illusion of accountability for an already unaccountable authoritarian regime,” Ben Taleblu said.

“In this case, it becomes just another PR stunt, and just another box to check in the information war,” he added.

Election Season

This year, Clubhouse looks to be one tool the regime has resorted to in order to boost turnout which it considers critical to its legitimacy on the international stage.

“Hypocrisy is an art form for some Iranian government officials. Tehran habitually monitors, filters, and blocks a variety of social media applications for its population while regime elites maintain accounts on these platforms to bolster their standing and amplify their talking points,” Ben Taleblu said.

Iran is due to hold presidential elections on June 18, and several senior Iranian officials have already expressed concern over potentially low voter turnout.

The importance of voter turnout to the regime is evident from statements senior Iranian officials issue on the matter, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority.

Khamenei has in the past gone as far as saying voting is a “religious duty,” and that people should participate in elections out of “love” for their country Iran, even if they do not like the supreme leader personally.

“Anyone who cares about Iran and its security must participate in the elections… Someone may not like me, but if they love Iran, they should go to the polls,” Khamenei said in a speech ahead of February 2020’s parliamentary elections, which saw Iran record its lowest ever turnout since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

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