Iran’s proxy war with Saudi Arabia, which is being played out in various theaters across the Middle East and beyond, has for a long time been spilling over into a somewhat unlikely arena: Twitter, to which the Iranian regime has blocked access within Iran. Now, Iran is cluing into the propaganda war being waged on banned platforms, and some hardliners are calling to restore access to Twitter in order to “enter into an ‘online battle,’” in the words of former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaee.
According to a recent analysis by Al-Monitor’s Arash Karami, in this asymmetrical Twitter war, it is Saudi Arabia which holds the big guns – millions of Saudi Twitterati who have been flooding the Twitterverse with anti-Iranian hashtags, some of which have trended worldwide.
And so, the very same hardliners who usually rally to curtail freedoms and impose censorship (including on Pokémon Go) are those calling to lift the 7-year ban on Twitter in Iran – but only so that millions of Iranians can come to its defense on this “international loudspeaker.”
The irony in this was not lost on the various media outlets which addressed the ongoing Twitter saga in recent weeks. And it was even more acute in light of the fact that for many Iranians (those who struggle to gain access to it, and the international audience it offers, despite the censorship), Twitter also serves as a platform for dissent. The network is often used to launch campaigns and express solidarity with human rights activists and prisoners such as rights defender Nargis Mohammadi, currently on hunger strike. The hashtag supporting Mohammadi, #FreeNarges, became the fifth highest trending topic on Twitter three hours after it was launched – a testament to the uses to which Iranians really put Twitter, and a far cry from the propaganda machines the repressive regime in Tehran envisions.