x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ayatollah Khamenei's Facebook page beats his own ban

Page launched days ago, which may be a fake, already has 10,000 'likes' on site banned in Iran after 2009 elections when it was used to organise protests.

The Facebook page of the Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Facebook page of the Ayatollah Khamenei.

Iran, the country that banned Facebook, calling it a weapon in the West's battle against the Islamic republic, now appears to have its septuagenarian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a member of the social networking site.

The page, launched just days ago and publicised on the supreme leader's Twitter account, already has nearly 10,000 "likes".

Bizarre as the move may sound, it is not surprising.

The Iranian regime has been adept in using US-based social media to spread its message even as it deploys draconian measures to prevent its critics from accessing the same tools to communicate. Media watchdogs call it "digital apartheid".

So far, Mr Khamenie's Facebook page (Khamenei.ir) has just four posts. Foremost is a striking black-and-white photograph from the early 1960s of a young Mr Khamenei alongside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his far more charismatic predecessor who founded the Islamic republic.

Facebook has been banned in Iran since president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009, when activists used the site to organise street protests on a scale not seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Last month, a dissident blogger, Sattar Beheshti, died in custody after he was arrested and allegedly tortured by Iran's cyber-police who accused him of "actions against national security on social networks and Facebook".

There was a symbolic stoning of Facebook and YouTube at a media exhibition in Tehran last year.

Although filtered, hardline Iranian officials estimate Facebook has some 17 million users in Iran who circumvent the ban through anti-filtering tools and proxy servers.

Mr Khamenei's page has many supporters, yet even some of these urge Iran's most powerful man to unblock Facebook inside Iran.

Other postings are sarcastic. One user asks whether Mr Khamenei is "also using anti-filtering" to circumvent his own ban on Facebook.

Because derogatory comments have not so far been removed, some Iran watchers suspect the ayatollah's Facebook page may be a fake. But others point out the site shares a similar tone, style and content with accounts devoted to spreading the ayatollah's message on Twitter, Instagram - a photo-sharing site, and www.khamenei.ir, an official website published in 13 languages. As religious figures go, the ayatollah, who has used Twitter since March 2009, appears far more cyber-savvy than Pope Benedict XV1, who signed up to the short messaging service only earlier this month and has yet to join Instagram.

Mr Khamenei, 73, prides himself on being in touch with Iran's youth, although to most Iranians he is a remote, enigmatic and authoritarian figure who generally shuns the limelight.

And he has long expressed fears that the US's popular culture would contaminate Iran's youth.

Politics aside, Mr Khamenei is best known for his love of poetry, music and, in his younger days, as a keen mountain hiker.

His truculent and populist president, by contrast, loves television cameras but is also attuned to the power of the internet and started blogging in 2006, although his entries had been few.

On his official website (http://www.ahmadinejad.ir/en), however, Mr Ahmadinejad was prompt in expressing sympathy for the young children killed in the shooting spree at a Connecticut primary school last week.

While the Iranian regime is locked in a high-stakes nuclear dispute with Washington, it insists it has no problem with the American people.

The Iranian authorities are meanwhile pressing ahead with plans to develop a separate halal or "clean" national intranet that would operate independently from the world wide web.

This, according to Iranian officials, means Iranians would no longer have to use western search engines such as Google, which they have branded as an "instrument of espionage".

Iran, which blocks millions of websites and blogs, was ranked the No 1 enemy of the internet this year by the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

Underscoring the regime's view that Iran's online community is a destabilising threat, Mr Khamenei in March set up a centralised committee to oversee web censorship.

The Supreme Council of Cyberspace includes the president, heads of intelligence, media chiefs and the Revolutionary Guards, which said it has trained a 120,000-strong "cyber army" over the past three years.

The US state department said it would keep tabs on Mr Khamenei's Facebook page, but had no comment on whether it was genuine or not.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae