March 21, 2009

Obama Turns To Internet Video In Diplomatic Overture To Iran

After harnessing the power of the Internet during his 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama is once again turning to the Web to launch the first significant diplomatic initiative of his presidency.

In a 3min 35sec YouTube video message entitled "A New Year, A New Beginning" directed to the people of Iran, President Obama marked the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. 

During his presidential campaign, Obama relied on his supporters to forward emails and videos to friends and family.  The White House now hopes similar actions will take place among Iranians.

So far, the gesture seems to be working, according to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

"This has been spreading like wildfire on the Internet," he told AFP.

"It's just amazing the number of emails I've received from people both in the US and in Iran wishing each other a happy new year and then there's a link at the bottom to the president's message," he added.

The video was posted on the White House website at www.whitehouse.gov/Nowruz, with captions in Farsi, and on White House YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/whitehouse.

Some 16 hours after its release, the video has registered more than 100,000 views and generated more than 1,000 comments, most of which were positive.

Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of the blog TechPresident.com, which examines matters of technology and politics, said the Internet provided Obama with a vehicle to deliver his words unfiltered directly people of Iran.

"He's using the open platform of the Internet to ensure his message is heard in full and not shortened where it could be taken out of context or manipulated in a way that doesn't meet with his intent," Rasiej told AFP.

"Because the Internet offers the president a direct conduit to the citizens of a given country he can not only talk to them directly but he knows they will spread his message for him."

"That's what makes it so powerful," he said.

"There is some 65-year-old Iranian who remembers the positive relationship between Iran and the United States who will forward this video to his or her friends in Iran."

Suzanne Maloney, author of a book on Iran and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, told AFP that Obama's use of video "gives a more personalized identification to the message than simply a printed statement or something read from a podium."

"It can be an effective medium particularly if the video is disseminated via the Internet because of course Iranians have a reasonable amount of access to the Internet," she added.

"A lot of sites are blocked but the reality is there are multiple avenues for getting material in and out of the country."

Rasiej said the Web had the potential to impact diplomacy the way it had changed politics.

"The Internet doesn't only represent an opportunity to remake politics in the United States," he said.

"It has the opportunity to reinvent diplomacy by not only having diplomats talk to each other but by engaging citizens talking to each other, debating common issues and goals."

Obama's video message to Iran "is the first step in 21st century citizen-to-citizen diplomacy led by the first true 21st century president," Rasiej said.

The United States has not had any diplomatic ties with Iran since 1980, after Iran's Islamic revolution when U.S. diplomats were taken hostage for more than a year.

During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to engage with Washington's rivals. His recent gesture to Iran is his most substantial step since taking office in January.