By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The United States has launched what it's billing as a "virtual Iranian embassy" in an effort to engage with that country more than three decades after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was closed and diplomatic relations were cut with Iran.
Opposition supporters in Tehran rally, despite an official ban, on the anniversary in 2009 of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, when U.S.-Iranian ties were severed.
The project's stated aim is to "enhance outreach and dialogue between the American and Iranian people."
A message by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in English and in Persian, welcomes users to the site. Clinton says she hopes it will provide an opportunity for citizens of the two countries "to communicate openly and without fear."
Virtual Embassy Of The United States - Tehran, Iran
"Because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, we have missed some important opportunities for dialogue with you, the citizens of Iran," Clinton says. "But today, we can use new technologies to bridge that gap and promote greater understanding between our two countries, and the peoples of each country, which is why we established this virtual embassy."
In accompanying text, the State Department explains: "This website is not a formal diplomatic mission, nor does it represent or describe a real U.S. embassy accredited to the Iranian government. But in the absence of direct contact, it can work as a bridge between the American and Iranian people."
Direct contact between Americans and Iranians has been lacking since 1979, the year of Iran's Islamic revolution and the taking of 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Since then, the embassy -- dubbed a "nest of spies" by Iranian revolutionaries -- has been closed and Washington has relied on the Swiss government to represent its diplomatic interests in the country.
For much of that time, Washington has been challenging, and sanctioning, Tehran over its secretive nuclear program, which the United States and many international critics claim is hiding a weapons program. Iran insists its nuclear activities are peaceful.
More Than Just Politics
The new "virtual embassy" is meant to be more than just a two-way communication platform between the people of the two counties. It also provides information, in Persian and English, about U.S. visas and how to study in the United States, as well as links to international reports about the human rights situation in Iran and articles about civil society.
The website also tries to counteract what it says are common "distortions" about America and the U.S. government's position toward Iran. On a page called "Myths Versus Facts: The Truth About U.S. Policy Toward Iran," users can scroll through a list of seven items, starting with: "Myth #1: It is U.S. policy to undermine the Iranian nation and to overthrow the government."
The State Department's answer reads: "Fact: U.S. policy is to support international norms, respecting both the rights and responsibilities of all nations. An Iran with a positive agenda would be a welcome partner. However, the Iranian government is currently pursuing a negative agenda, both at home and abroad. Iran refuses to abide by international commitments intended to ensure and demonstrate that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons; it provides money, weapons, and training to terrorist groups throughout the region, including some targeting U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan; it seeks to undermine progress towards a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; and it abrogates the universal rights of its citizens. The U.S. will always respect the rights of an Iran that respects the rights of both its citizens and its neighbors."
At a State Department briefing to announce the website's launch, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said the Obama administration wants Iranians to understand that the United States respects Iranians and their culture.
"We want to communicate directly to the people of Iran," Sherman said. "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."
In recent months, the White House has launched a Persian-language Facebook page and Persian-language Twitter account, and appointed a Persian-language spokesperson at the State Department -- all in an effort to reach ordinary Iranians directly.
A State Department official said Iranians who want to apply for a U.S. visa will soon be able to start the process through the new website. But they will still need to travel to a neighboring country with a U.S. a consulate to go through an interview and pick up the actual document.
But Mehdi Arabashahi, a well-known Iranian student activist who recently moved to the U.S. to study, told RFE/RL that the virtual embassy appears to be more of a symbolic move and won't do much to simplify the complicated and expensive process of securing a U.S. visa.
"[The U.S.] has tried to create a bridge between the U.S. government and the people of Iran, but it will not remove the many difficulties Iranians who want to obtain a U.S. visa," Arabashahi said. "This is one of the main problems for Iranian students and people who want to travel to the U.S."
A young man in Tehran who asked that his name be withheld out of fears of official reprisal, told RFE/RL he has a similar view.
"I had a quick look at 'the virtual embassy' before [the government] filtered it," the man said. "The information that's available on the website has been available elsewhere, too, but it's good that everything is in Persian. The problem is that I don't think it will make obtaining a U.S. visa easier for us."
At press time, the new U.S. virtual embassy didn't appear to have been blocked by Iranian authorities. But the regime in Tehran is among the toughest Internet censors in the world, and Iranians seeking to access the site are likely to need to do so with online antifiltering tools.
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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