US opens virtual online embassy for Iranians

Iranians will have the option of being able to reach out to America via an online embassy - but the move's not been appreciated by Iranian authorities. Photo / Thinkstock
Iranians will have the option of being able to reach out to America via an online embassy - but the move's not been appreciated by Iranian authorities. Photo / Thinkstock

The United States opened a virtual online embassy to reach out to Iranians despite the absence of official ties, vowing to break through the Islamic regime's "electronic curtain."

Iranian authorities have already voiced anger over the virtual embassy, accusing the United States of seeking to interfere in the country after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans for the project in October.

The virtual embassy, offers US policy statements in English and Farsi, information on US visas, news from US-funded Voice of America and links to share views via social media.

In a welcome message on the website, Clinton voiced hope that the platform would provide a way for Americans and Iranians to communicate "openly and without fear."

"Because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, we have missed some important opportunities for dialogue with you, the citizens of Iran," she said in a video message.

"But today, we can use new technologies to bridge that gap and promote greater understanding between our two countries, and the peoples of each country, which is why we established this virtual embassy," she said.

US officials invested in the website in hopes that it could withstand a cyber-attack, or at least be quickly put back online if it is taken down.

State Department number three Wendy Sherman, introducing the website at a Washington news conference, said that the United States was seeking dialogue with ordinary Iranians despite "very strong differences" with the government.

"The regime has tried to impose an electronic curtain by disrupting cell phones, the internet and social media," said Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs.

"This is one more effort to try and get around that curtain and get information directly to the Iranian people," she said.

The virtual embassy will allow Iranians to start applications for visas to the United States. But Iranians will still need to go overseas, typically to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, to obtain visas.

Sherman voiced hope that more Iranians would study in the United States. The number of Iranian students in the United States rose 19 per cent in 2010-11 from the previous academic year, according to the Institute for International Education.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when protesters ousted the pro-Western shah and later seized the US embassy in Tehran.

Hundreds of protesters last week trashed the British embassy and a second British diplomatic compound in Iran, triggering strong international condemnation. Iran's leaders tried to distance themselves from the attack.

Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's parliament, said in October that the virtual US embassy would fail, calling the plans for the project "a sign of political shortcomings" on the part of the United States.

The virtual embassy looks much like the website of any US diplomatic mission but lists a series of "myths" about the United States in hopes of addressing Iranian grievances and suspicions.

Taking up one major sore point, the website highlights that President Barack Obama admitted US involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had run afoul of Britain for nationalizing the oil industry.

The virtual embassy also denies charges that Washington "supports Iranian political or ethnic-based terrorist groups," noting that the United States has designated the People's Mujahedeen as a terrorist group.

The group, which has fought both the shah and the clerical regime, has waged a high-profile campaign to remove the terrorist label in the United States and regularly holds demonstrations outside the State Department.

- AFP

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