Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Ayatollah's Twitter Feed: To Be Taken with a Huge Grain of Salt

Khamenei and Hussain Al-Montazeri, one of the good guys
of the Iranian Revolution (1978 photo) 

Sayedd Ali Khamenei, the seventy-five year old cleric and "Supreme Leader" of the Islamic Republic of Iran speaks Persian, Arabic, and Azerbaijani.  He has translated several books from Arabic into Persian and he has analyzed Persian poetry. With trivial exceptions--I heard the other day that he once was in North Korea--he has never been out of the country. He does not speak English. He is not savvy to U.S. or Western European internal politics.

Nevertheless, since 2009 there exists an English language Twitter account in Khamenei's name. The account uses the Twitter handle "Khamenei_ir"and it sports a handsome avuncular picture of the cleric. It's a sophisticated effort. There are photos, videos, and many tweets a day that display a native command of the English language, and understanding of U.S. and Western politics. The feed knows where to push our buttons.  It has 115,000 followers. It frequently talks trash about "oppressed Americans", "Black lives matter", "Native lives matter," "what Jesus would do," Zionism, the Holocaust, and Israel.  This Twitter feed plainly is not written by Khamenei.

Not only is the Khameni_ir Twitter feed not written by Khamenei, it's equally plain that he does not pass on and approve all individual tweets; they are way too numerous and diverse in what they cover. The man has a life to lead.

Yet there is a fiction carried on by the Western press that all of these tweets reflect the considered opinion of the Supreme Leader and that they are the sovereign voice of Iran. See, e.g., Michael Rubin, David Frum, The Washington Post, Hunter Walker, the Washington Free Beacon.

Take this article in The Guardian from last November:
Iran’s supreme leader has stepped into the debate over police violence and race in America, likening police shootings of black people in Ferguson and elsewhere to the Palestinian struggle in Gaza in a series of tweets using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter....  In his latest outpouring, Khamenei seeks to highlight what he sees as the hypocrisy of the US at Christmas by suggesting a link between Jesus suffering for the oppressed, and official oppression of protesters in Ferguson. ....When it comes to domestic US affairs, Khamenei is quite the regular commentator. In 2011, when Occupy protests were erupting across America, he predicted the movement would bring down the entire capitalist system. ... 
Khamenei’s English-language Twitter feed is unverified by the social media company. It is widely understood that the account is managed by the supreme leader’s personal office, though they too will neither confirm or deny it.  Its existence casts a sliver of light into the thinking of the man who has wielded ultimate power in Iran for the past 25 years, .... The Twitter feed also acts as a megaphone for official Iranian policy, with regular denunciations of the Israeli government and Zionism.
Take Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, tweeting this morning:
Iran's supreme leader has issued a series of tweets that unfortunately make it harder to sell an Iran deal in the US twitter.com/khamenei_ir/st… 
This is pure fantasy, of course. Khamenei has not "issued a series of tweets"--or at least Kristof has no clue whether Khamenei had any involvment with these tweets. Some office in Iran--perhaps akin to The Voice of America, perhaps something closer to the "Supreme Leader's personal office"--issued these tweets.  Kristof and we have no clue as to what's behind them.

Surely there is a story to be written about the creation of the Khamenei_ir Twitter feed: who within the government controls this feed, who created it, who maintains it how much oversight is there and by whom? What stock, if any, should we put in these tweets as reflective of official Iranian policy? Is this run by hardliners in the government or liberals?  Is this run by a bunch of Twitter savvy youths with a long leash? Which, if any, tweets are discussed before posting on Khamenei_ir and with whom?  Are the tweets that Kristof refers us to this morning generated by hardliners in Iran opposed to the deal? Were they discussed with and approved by Khamenei?

After looking for a morning on the internet I have found no such story--only the mindlessly repeated fiction that every tweet is the solemn word of the Supreme Leader and official policy of Iran. No one analyzing U.S. policy (in their right mind) would treat what is said on The Voice of America in that manner.

Last November Khamenei_ir posted a "9-Point Plan to Destroy Israel." It's certain that this tweet was  not created or posted by Khamenei himself.  The question is was he consulted? Did he authorize the tweet?  This is not a question that occurred, however, to Stuart Winer at the Times of Israel who blithely adopted the fiction that "Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called over the weekend for the destruction of Israel." Of course, this fiction serves the interests of forces in Israel who want to portray Khamenei and official Iranian policy as anti-semitic and crazy.  So why should they look at questions that might distract from that message?

It doesn't mean we shouldn't.

It's not like the Israeli intelligence agencies don't have an understanding of how this Twitter feed works. Surely they must. Not that we'd hear about it from Netanyahu who is fond of the crazy stuff. And it's not like the New York Times doesn't have the ability to track down and write a story that would provide some context for this Khamenei_ir Twitter feed, and what we should take away from the crazy things that are said on it. So far no one in the media appears to have chosen to research and write that story. It's easier and much more fun to take every last tweet as the literal word of the Supreme Leader and the definitive expression of Iran's sovereign policy. It helps to generate outrage...and outrage is the opiate of the masses. It sells copy.

As long as people continue not to care about what's behind this Twitter feed, or to make an effort to explain it to me, I'm going to take what is said on this Khamenei_ir with a huge grain of salt.


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