Iran’s cyber-contradictions

 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Global diplomats have spent countless hours trying to gain insight into the thinking of Iran’s reclusive supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now they have a new window into his mind: His Facebook page. The page, which came online in December under the name Khamenei.ir, appears to be run out of Khamenei’s office. It covers his daily activities, including a recent talk denouncing “the plots of the enemies” of Islam.

Yet Iran’s government denies that the ayatollah approved the page. Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi, secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, insists that its creation was a “spontaneous” effort by Khamenei’s supporters to celebrate and defend him. The denial is convenient, since it gets the Iranian government out of explaining why the supreme leader is on Facebook, when Facebook is technically banned in Iran. The page comes amid stepped-up attacks on Iranian pro-democracy activists who organize over the Internet. In October, a well-known blogger, Sattar Beheshti, was arrested after criticizing the regime on Facebook. He died in custody a week later. Indeed, some believe the supreme leader’s Facebook account is a trap to lure dissidents into making nasty comments. That didn’t stop one visitor from writing: “If only Facebook had a ‘Hate’ button rather than ‘Like.’ ”

Iran’s stepped-up Internet activity is being closely watched by the US government, which announced sanctions this week on the country’s cyber-police force, citing Beheshti’s death. Meanwhile, Khamenei’s page has given Americans a rare glimpse of the ayatollah. Interested observers can also follow him on Twitter. So far he has sent 3,246 tweets and accumulated 8,743 followers. And — no surprise here — he is following no one.