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YouTube Diplomacy and Iran

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In Iran, a religious revolution in decline is confronting a technological revolution in ascendancy.

It is no secret that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has progressively lost its direction since Iran's retreat from the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Journalistic portraits of Iran often reflect a populace with a collective and public sense of defeat and disillusionment, who privately engage in and celebrate Western traditions and values.

In the 21st century, Western values have become much more than the freedoms of wearing makeup or consuming alcohol behind closed doors. They are also the manifold and evolving freedoms created by the Internet, and more specifically, Web 2.0.

The ascendant technological revolution which we are witnessing is fueled by a younger generation using Facebook, Twitter, SMS, MMS, YouTube, Demotix, and other Web 2.0 tools and services. They are communicating with each other and with strangers, collaborating on organizing protests, and sharing information worldwide. A multitude of unemployed and unhappy voices, once passive, are now active, animated, and eager for change.

The Obama Administration both finds itself in the heart of, and on the sidelines of, this confrontation. Consequently, the Obama Administration has opted to tread carefully on the basis that it would "seem counterproductive to be seen as meddling." While the Iranian people "should be heard and respected," any official suggestion of US interference would be counterproductive at this time.

At the same time, the Obama Administration's use and encouragement of Web 2.0 tools is more illustrative of their true intentions: they are decidedly on the side of this technological revolution, as this NYT article indicates. In the past three months, the Administration has begun to pursue "YouTube Diplomacy" and has appeared to lay down three cornerstones to commit its policy here.

The first cornerstone was the launch of YouTube Diplomacy with the President's message on the Feast of Nawroz. The video stood in stark contrast to the Iranian leadership's labels of President Obama pursuing "imperialist business as usual." Because it was posted on YouTube, it became viral -- anyone, anywhere with access to the Web could view the video on YouTube, or any other site or blog where the video was embedded. Anyone could rate and comment on it, and they could actively share it via email or instant messenger. Additionally, because the video was downloadable, Iranians and citizens of other countries without access to the Internet were able to view the video via CD-ROM, Flash drive, or even videotape.

The second cornerstone was the President's speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University last month. Once again, the speech may be found on YouTube, and with quotes like "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government," or the implicit description of Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust as "baseless, ignorant, and hateful," it seemed tailor-made to be cut into soundbites that could be recorded, shared, and discussed online in Iran.

The third cornerstone is the encouragement of Web 2.0 communications between Iran and the West. The State Department's recent request to Twitter to postpone maintenance for the purpose of continuing communications with Iran, and other outreach by the State to Facebook and YouTube, have been additional, clear indications of where the Obama Administration's preferences lie.

These three cornerstones are the foundation of a foreign policy built to surf the technological revolution that is occurring worldwide as it expands, using the language of XML across phones, laptops, and hand-held devices as its foundation.

There are at least four important lessons which we already have learned from YouTube Diplomacy:

  1. Millions of connections can beat one message: President Ahmadinejad's narrow message of an evil West bent on destroying Iran is now being drowned out by millions of connections and correspondences between Iranians and the West.
  2. The Emperor Has No Clothes - The Iran vs. The World dichotomy seems to be dying, if not only the distorted, tightly-held view of a few. Growing rumors of the regime bussing in Hezbollah fighters to combat hundreds of thousands of Iranians protesting in a non-violent manner raises the question: which Iranians will answer President Ahmadinejad's call to fight for Iran against a West that seeks to help them?
  3. The Ayatollah is basically powerless against this technology: Block the Internet, cut out the computer, and a YouTube video will still circulate amongst citizens in other formats. Cut mobile telephone services, and a user will find a way to communicate via Twitter online. Block Internet access and users will find foreign-hosted proxy servers communicated via Twitter
  4. And more generally, technology adapts faster than a poor regime: Iran has an interesting cross-section of the highest Internet adoption in the Middle East, and one of the worst managed economies in the region. This technology is cheap and accessible, and its ease of use, adaptability, and variability allow it to spread quickly. The Iranian government simply does not have the resources to combat this technology as it evolves, or to defend itself against the thousands of individual hackers attacking its Internet from across the globe.

At the same time, YouTube Diplomacy has volatile implications which should be of the highest concern to us. It has as much potential to do harm as it does to do good:

  1. We have no idea what will happen when YouTube diplomacy fails. Perhaps it will be like one diplomatic channel failing. On the other hand, the Cairo speech has been viewed over 500,000 times on YouTube. Arguably, that's 500,000 diplomatic channels - we have to wonder whether the failure of YouTube Diplomacy in one instance will have exponential ramifications.
  2. Similarly, we have no idea what happens when Web 2.0 confronts military power. It is still unclear, at this point in time, how the people empowered by the tools of Web 2.0 fare against the real-world threats of brute force, violence and death.
  3. People who use YouTube and Twitter are self-selecting. These Iranians are educated and web savvy. Ahmedinejad's supporters, for the most part, are not. That means that all the content we get on Twitter and in the photos coming out of Tehran have a particular viewpoint. We risk underestimating Ahmedinejad's support because we receive a very particular point of view.
  4. Adoption of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other Web 2.0 is evolving and growing: We still do not have an adequate contextual understanding of images, Tweets, videos, or communications via Facebook, or their implications.
  5. The reliability of information relayed via Web 2.0 is suspect: The anonymity that proxy servers provide are as problematic for confirming the reliability of photos, videos, and text as they are reliable for expediting these communications. We also cannot confirm always "what" these images, videos, and emails have described to have occurred.
  6. This technology revolution does not present a political alternative to the Vileyat-al-Faqih. Mousavi is an alternative to Ahmadinejad. He has not positioned himself as an alternative to Khameini. If the technology revolution in ascendancy wins out, can the US or the region handle a wide swath of instability cutting across an unstable Iraq, an unstable Iran, an unstable Afghanistan, and an unstable Pakistan?

The Obama Administration continues to publicly suggest that it is gingerly toeing the developments in Iran, and seeks to offend no one. But it has demonstrated decidedly its belief in the transformative power of the Internet and the tools of Web 2.0, and sees an opportunity in Iran to put these tools to work.

This is a risky bet: Twitter is less than 3 years old, YouTube is over 4 years old. Facebook is over 5 years old. These tools are new, are evolving rapidly, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There are many legitimate questions as to whether the Administration should be attempting outside the US to duplicate the success it has had with Web 2.0 within the US, particularly in the most volatile region in the world. We should restrain our optimism for "change" as we watch, and participate, as these technologies confront the past in Iran.

Andrew A. Rosen is the Principal and Founder of AAgave LLC, a strategic consultancy in digital media, and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked in digital media at MTV Networks, on the foreign policy staffs for Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Robert Torricelli, and at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a New York-based think tank.