Most Americans have no idea who Nahid Shirbisheh is. But in Iran, she has become a powerful symbol of resistance. A little over a year ago, she witnessed her son’s murder at a government protest in Tehran. Last month she released a video made at the location of his killing that went viral in Iran.
When I spoke to her in November, she surprised me by thanking the outgoing Trump administration. “They mentioned my son’s name and my own name and they supported my voice when my son was killed and I was in prison,” she said.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran policy was designed mostly to coerce the regime into a better nuclear deal than the one it joined in 2015. U.S.-imposed sanctions were not meant to pressure Iran’s rulers to release political prisoners or to allow a referendum on the powers of the supreme leader, as Iranian activists have been demanding for years. Even if Trump’s policy had succeeded, which it didn’t, Iranians would still be stuck with their oppressors.
That said, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called out the regime’s human-rights abuses. He has highlighted its corruption and told the stories of its dissidents and victims. Most intriguing, he has empowered a small staff at the State Department to use Iranian social media to help craft U.S. public diplomacy with Iranians.
This is where Shirbisheh comes in. A year ago, Pompeo mentioned the murder of Shirbisheh’s son, Pouya Bakhtiari, at a little-covered event on human rights in Iran. The State Department made sure that the speech was translated and promoted on the U.S. Farsi-language social-media accounts.
This new approach owes a lot to Mora Namdar, an Iranian-American Pompeo met in 2018 in Dallas. A lawyer by training, Namdar was hired that year as an adviser to Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy to Iran. Namdar and a social media guru named Len Khodorkovsky soon took over the State Department’s Farsi-language Instagram and Telegram accounts, using them to gauge which messages resonated with the Iranian public.
Pompeo’s mention of Bakhtiari was an example of how this process worked. Namdar had noticed how this particular story was trending and pressed Pompeo to include it in his speech. Likewise, the State Department’s 2019 decision to ban visas for both senior regime officials and their families was driven by social media posts inside Iran expressing anger that Iranian elites were able to attend U.S. and Western universities, while many average Iranians were cut off from these schools.
This counts as small but meaningful change. The State Department had generally used its Farsi social media accounts as a broadcast platform — a way to reinforce what it was already saying. The department’s new approach treated social media as a channel to learn what Iranians thought about both their own regime and U.S. policy.
A complementary piece of this policy involves more outreach to Iranian Americans. Under President Barack Obama, much of that outreach was done through the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that has largely cultivated a relationship with the Democratic Party and sought to portray Iranian-Americans as supportive of diplomacy with the Iranian regime. Under Trump, the State Department went out of its way to engage Iranians who want the U.S. to help destabilize that regime.
“As we speak to Iranians who live in exile or who have made homes in the United States, we find a common thread,” said Elliott Abrams, who has replaced Hook as the U.S. special envoy for Iran. Their message, he said, is this: “Don’t forget the Iranian people.” In his talks with Iranian-Americans, Abrams said, he has heard criticism as well. They don’t want U.S. policy to focus only on the regime, and they don’t want diplomatic deals “that abandon the Iranian people and keep the regime in place forever.”
This is not to say that the U.S. government should assume the responsibility for transitioning Iran to a democracy. That was, is and should remain a task for the Iranian people. But having a small group at the State Department that follows what Iranian activists say on social media is a useful way to gauge the regime’s legitimacy. Over time, it could be a valuable way to communicate directly with the Iranians who might one day be in charge of the country.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
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