DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif confirmed the landmark nuclear deal over the weekend, his announcement not made at a podium or declared in front of television cameras. It was done on Twitter, and that's ironic because the government blocks many Iranians from using sites like Twitter and Facebook. Now, many people in Iran find their way around the restrictions and are able to get on social media.
Babak Rahimi is an associate professor of Communication, Culture and Religious Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He closely follows social media and says despite the restrictions, Iranians have been online chatting about the new nuclear deal and that includes people in the government.
BABAK RAHIMI: This is the irony. Many of the Iranian officials know that there are millions of Iranians on the different social media sites. And they also use these sites in order to have access to their own constituencies. Now, of course, these sites are blocked. Nevertheless, they are trying their best to actually unblock these sites. The Iranian president has called for a committee in order to get rid of these blocking regimes. But there are these hardliners in power who do not like these social media sites for the simple fact that they believe it will create an instability in the country, which, of course, would not be good for the long term survival of the regime.
GREENE: You said that a lot of the reaction that you've seen on social media has been positive when it comes to this deal. Do you have an example or two of things that you've read?
RAHIMI: Yeah. I'm quoting this: I'm happy that the shadow of war that was hovering over the country because of the short-sightedness of the previous administration is, at least for now, gone. And the previous administration, of course, is making reference to the Ahmadinejad administration, who was replaced by Rouhani this year.
GREENE: I wonder if there's sort of a selection going on here. We have people who are on social media, people who know how to get a VPN, one of these ways to get around sites that are blocked. It sounds like we might not be getting a full picture of what everyone in Iran thinks.
RAHIMI: That's true. I mean you have to be careful not to generalize, but sometimes you find some of these younger Iranians echoing or re-expressing some of the ideas of the parents online.
GREENE: You say, you know, there are a lot of government officials who have been on Twitter and Facebook. Anything strike you from what you've seen from them?
RAHIMI: Well, many of them are having your standard rhetoric, praising the negotiation outcome, mostly because the supreme leader has approved it, going all the way from the members of the parliament, of course the Iranian president, and to the representative of the supreme leader, who by the way has a Facebook and Instagram and a Twitter account as well.
GREENE: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is on social media as well?
RAHIMI: He is on social media, and in fact he's been criticized for that. You know, why are you having this filtering system while being on Facebook, and the indirect argument that he has given is that, well, you know, there is nothing un-Islamic about Facebook. It is how certain things are being said in Facebook that are un-Islamic.
He knows he has his followers and is very much engaged with them by sending his fatwas and statements and views through, you know, Instagram or Facebook.
GREENE: I'm so fascinated by this dynamic, Professor. I mean you have a country where websites like Facebook and Twitter are generally blocked by government censors, but you have the Ayatollah himself actually on social media. I mean what does this tell you about modern Iran?
RAHIMI: That technology is everywhere. It's in the lives of the most conservative Iranian family. It's a symbol of modernity. It's a symbol of progress, and many of these Iranians are just simply so happy to be out of isolation and they're reflecting this on social media sites.
GREENE: Given that the Ayatollah has his own Facebook page and that the president has been tweeting, are we getting to the point where the hardliners are going to give up and stop trying to block these sites?
RAHIMI: Oh, no. I don't think so. I think while probably in public they would say we should block it, at the same time they're the ones that will be using social media sites to either have a debate with their adversaries or actually communicate with each other in the same hardliner groups. Kind of a hypocrisy, I guess you could say.
And I think that's one of those double-sided realities in Iranian life where in one level in the public you're saying something and at home you're doing something else. And that complexity adds to the identity of many of these conservatives or even non-conservatives who have masks that they put on in the public and these masks are taken off in places like social media.
GREENE: Professor, it is always great to have you on the program. Thanks so much for talking to us.
RAHIMI: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
GREENE: That's Professor Babak Rahimi from the University of California, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.