Britain launched a website and Facebook page for Iranians on Wednesday, harnessing the power of social media to try to evade Iranian censorship and take its message directly to the people. Britain is at loggerheads with Iran over its nuclear energy programme, which Tehran says is peaceful but which Britain and other Western powers suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb. Relations between Britain and Iran, always tense, hit new lows last November when Britain closed its embassy in Tehran after it was stormed by protesters and expelled all Iranian diplomats from London.
With the British Broadcasting Corporation, Britain's public service broadcaster, complaining of frequent jamming of its services to Iran, Britain is seeking new ways to communicate with Iranians.
“We are relaunching now our Iran website and social media presence for you and for you to use it,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a video message on the “UK for Iranians” website.
Britain's Foreign Office says the website as well as new Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts will provide information about Britain and its policies towards Iran as well as allowing Iranians to have discussions and ask questions.
BBC Director-General Mark Thompson said on Wednesday the broadcaster had suffered a sophisticated cyber-attack following a campaign by Iranian authorities against its Persian service, although he stopped short of explicitly accusing the Iranian government of being responsible. Thompson also reported attempts to jam satellite feeds of BBC services into Iran and to swamp its London phone lines with automated calls.
The power of social media was demonstrated during the Arab Spring. Iran's opposition relied on its websites or mobile phone text messages to rally its supporters during the large-scale protests that followed the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Video footage of the death of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, who became an international icon for the protests, was watched by thousands on the Internet. But the Foreign Office said the Iranian government had “consistently sought to deny its people freedom of expression through regulation and censorship of the Internet and media”.
In his video message, in English with Farsi subtitles, Hague said there were strong cultural links between Iran and Britain despite “difficult” relations between the two governments.
“It's sad therefore that the Iranian authorities make it more difficult for the people of Iran to find out about and have contact with the rest of the world,” he said.
Hague said relations over Iran's nuclear programme were “very difficult, although we are open to negotiations about that over the coming months”.
Six world powers, including Britain, accepted an offer last week from Tehran for fresh talks on its nuclear programme.
“We also disagree about what is happening in Syria, where thousands of people have been murdered and repression and brutality and torture are commonplace. We disagree with Iran's support for the regime that is carrying out these acts,” Hague said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has deployed his armed forces to crush a popular uprising that will mark its first anniversary on Thursday. In the wake of riots that rocked English cities last year, Prime Minister David Cameron said authorities were looking at “whether it would be right” to stop people communicating through social media when they were plotting violence. But his government later backed away from the idea.