Debating in the New Media: State Department dialogues with Ahmadinejad's media advisor

I haven’t had a lot of kind words for State’s Digital Outreach Team (note to McCain campaign, the image was there long before the RNC), but over a couple of weeks this summer, they successfully “outreached”. To who? Iranian President Ahmadinejad's media advisor, Ali Akbar Javanfekr. The debate, which took place on Mr. Javanfekr’s personal blog, was printed in the Persian language newspaper “Iran” on Aug 27, 2008.

Read the transcript here. Below the fold is a fifth response from the Digital Outreach Team that is not in the transcript and not printed in “Iran.” This is how the State Department opens its description of the discussion:

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the president’s adviser in media affairs has for some time been writing his views about different political and social topics in his personal weblog and even publishes tens of pro and opposing views with his own replies. The up-to-datedness of the blog’s topics and their correlation with the country’s current events has attracted the media to it in a way that not only the content of this blog but the views of supporters and critics of the government and the replies of the president’s adviser have become newsworthy and the print media and news sites have given these subjects special attention.

It is an interesting back and forth between an official representative of the United States, the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), and Javanfekr, speaking in his personal capacity and not as the media advisor to the president. Most remarkable is the extent of the discussion and that it was printed in this particular newspaper.

A few brief comments on the transcript.

DOT and Mr. Javanfekr go back forth on the economy, Iran Air 655, Dr. Mosadegh and other subjects. The DOT emphasizes the standard line that the Administration’s issue is not with the Iranian people but with the Iranian government, which Mr. Javanfekr does not accept. On Mosadegh, the DOT had this to say:

It’s interesting you speak of Dr. Mossadegh [“Ms. Madeline Albright the secretary of State of the Clinton administration showed rare bravery in accepting responsibility for some of USG’s past mistakes especially the coup against Dr. Mosadegh...”] to justify your view but fail to mention that the policies of the current leadership in Iran differs greatly from the political principles of Dr. Mossadegh. Using Dr. Mossadegh’s name when it is convenient for you and serves your cause could be interpreted as insincere. How many major landmarks in Iran are currently named after Dr. Mossadegh? I believe the answer to that question is zero. I am sure you remember when the name of Pahlavi Street was changed to Mossadegh Street after the revolution only to be changed again shortly after that.

While I don’t agree with the logic of many of Mr. Javanfekr’s arguments, I understand his with the DOT remaining faceless and names. At one point he says that “from now on refer to you as her Excellency Madam Rice, the distinguished US secretary of State unless you identify your position/standing at the US Department of State to the readers of this blog.” The response by DOT:

Thank you for the promotion but I am not the Secretary of State. I am a member of the Digital Outreach Team which is an entity within the US Department of State. Our goal is to establish communications and have a candid conversation with the people of Iran and answer questions about US foreign policy. But I think it’s better instead of focusing on personalities and job titles to focus on issues.

For me, this is a point for Mr. Javanfekr and indicative of a larger problem at State. Yes, the DOT is an “entity within the US Department of State”, but that does not mean the person, who obviously has authority to speak on behalf of the Department, and by extension the Government, should remain anonymous. This is another example of inhibiting the empowerment of the employees at State that does not fit with the requirements of the modern era, let alone the New Media environment. Signing the comments simply as DOT is just shy of anonymous. In the real world, the “meatspace”, would someone from the State Department not give his or her real name when debating an issue?

This is, to me, another example of the reticence of the Department of State from a necessary transformation into the Department of State and Non-State. Regardless, for now, read the transcript. I would appreciate your comments (hopefully comments are working again). DipNote authors have names. America.gov authors have names. State must think in terms of empowering ALL of its people.

Not included in the transcript not printed in “Iran” was the following, a fifth response from the Digital Outreach Team:

Mr. Javanfekr,

Previously, I wrote about my position within Digital Outreach Team. Frankly I don't find it necessary or appropriate to share with you my personal life. Nor do I find it disrespectful in Iranian culture. Just so you know that I am fully aware of Iranian culture here is a little about me.  I was born in Tehran and did my primary education in Iran. As an "early bloom" of the revolution I chanted many revolutionary slogans during the morning ceremonies at my school. After I finished my elementary education in Iran, my family like many other Iranians of those days decided to leave Iran. I continued my college education in the United States and earned a master's degree in the field of international relations and am currently working with the US Department of State's Digital Outreach Team. Now allow me to get back to the issues.

The sanctions that have been imposed on Iran by the international community are due to the Iranian leadership's defiance of the world. The recent decision by the European Union to impose sanctions on Iran's largest bank shows that the entire international community is concerned over Iran's nuclear program. It also shows that the international community is united in pursuing of its dual-track policy towards the Iranian government. Once again, contrary to what the Iranian government is trying to portray, it is the international community as a whole and not just the United States that is concerned with Iranian leader's nuclear program. At various IAEA Board meetings we have witnessed member states echoing the Director General's concerns, pressing Iranian representative to give substantive answers to worrisome questions about "possible military dimensions" of Iranian leadership's program.  Nearly every state that has delivered a statement on Iran -- including not only Europe, China, Russia and the United States, but also prominent countries in the Nonaligned Movement - they have argued that Iran's leaders need to provide additional transparency into its activities because of the broad international concern that Iran has undertaken efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

The decision by the United States to participate in the nuclear talks in Geneva underscored our seriousness to solve this issue diplomatically. It also demonstrated P5+1 unity behind our offer to Iran and reinforced Secretary Rice's signature on the P5+1 letter to your government. Just to refresh everyone's memory, let me point out some of the main points of this package.  Please note that the package provides what the Iranian leaders claim to seek - an advanced civilian nuclear program.

- Reaffirmation of Iran's right to nuclear energy for exclusively peaceful purposes in conformity with its obligations under the NPT.

- Provision of technological and financial assistance necessary for Iran's peaceful use of nuclear energy, support for the resumption of technical cooperation projects in Iran by the IAEA.

- Support for construction of LWR based on state-of-the-art technology.

- Support for R&D in nuclear energy as international confidence is gradually restored.

- Provision of legally binding nuclear fuel supply guarantees.

- Cooperation with regard to management of spent fuel and radioactive waste.

We want the Iranian people to see clearly how serious we are about reconciliation and helping them to develop their full potential -- but also who's responsible for Iran's isolation. The truth is that the Iranian leader's Iran's hidden nuclear program brings it less security, not more. They set back, rather than advance, Iran's ability to play the significant regional and international role that its history, culture and geopolitical weight should bring it. Major powers like South Korea have realized the benefits of civilian nuclear energy without the need to enrich and reprocess, and that is a path that is open to Iran too. The United States hopes Iran understands the choices before it. The only damage to Iran has come from the decisions Iran's leaders themselves have made.

See Also: