On 14 July 2015, the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, UK, US, and Germany) and Iran completed negotiations in Vienna and reached agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Deal.
The JCPOA was the fruition of 20 months of negotiations and arguably the most important diplomatic event of the decade. The deal curtails Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, while inviting it back into the international economy by lifting sanctions. For most of the P5+1 states, particularly the US, diplomatic communications efforts had to be waged on two fronts – international and domestic.
Not only was sound strategy and tireless diplomatic work required to complete the deal, but redoubtable communications efforts were required on the home front to “sell” the deal to American and Western publics. These efforts resulted in one of (if not the) largest and most comprehensive foreign policy communications campaigns, deploying the full spectrum of traditional and social media tactics. In October 2015, the JCPOA came into effect.
Seven months later, controversy erupted in American foreign policy circles over a Sunday New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisory for Strategic Communications. The piece sparked a heated debate on the extent to which Rhodes’ and the White House’s impressive communications strategy massaged facts and cajoled journalists into presenting the American people with a favourable assessment of the nuclear deal. The focus was particularly on the use of digital communications to achieve public consensus on the Iran Deal and avoid a congressional delay or derailment.
The article itself has received heavy criticism, but the controversy surrounding the communications practices it revealed speak to just how effective and powerful the White House’s combined use of traditional media and digital platforms was in achieving its objective of securing the deal. Regardless of one’s view, the recent debate brought to light a top policy area where digital played a key role in the White House’s global engagement toolkit. The Iran Deal was widely discussed across social and digital channels, and the White House was a key player in the conversations.
The Administration launched a dedicated @TheIranDeal Twitter handle, a new page on the White House website, and deployed active and engaging content across White House and broader US Government digital channels, including the State Department, Department of Energy, the Treasury, and members of Congress. To give the argument more weight when 140 characters were not enough, the White House launched a dedicated Medium publication.
This allowed the administration to publish the full text of the deal, feature pop-out commentary, deliver detailed arguments in support of the deal, and provide a platform for long-form discussion pieces. The Medium publication gave a platform for various members of the Administration to argue the case for the deal. Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew all contributed posts.
Content also included statements of support from members of Congress and allies of the United States, including British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and UK diplomats in Washington. As a truly collaborative digital diplomacy effort, the communications campaign surrounding the Iran Deal was a huge undertaking. However, activity supporting the campaign has almost completely halted 95 | 120 over the last few months. A Twitter analysis highlights the drop in communications around the JCPOA, which poses challenges to its continued support and to full and faithful implementation by all parties. @TheIranDeal Twitter account tweeted 1,014 times between its first post on 21 July and 2 February. It has not tweeted since. Activity around the Iran Deal from accounts dedicated to the White House and the State Department follow a similar trajectory. Profiles representing the White House (@WhiteHouse), President Barack Obama (@POTUS), and Josh Earnest, the President’s Press Secretary (@PressSec), tweeted about the deal 103 times between 21 July and 2 February. The State Department’s Twitter profiles (@StateDept; @JohnKerry; and @statedeptspox) have been only slightly more active. They have tweeted about the deal a combined 21 times since 2 February, compared to 168 tweets posted from 21 July to 2 February.
But, in contrast to this decline, conversation about the deal has continued. #IranDeal was used in over 2.1 million tweets during @TheIranDeal’s period of activity. In the four months since 2 February, it has been mentioned over 62,000 times per month. While a decrease compared to the July-August peak, it demonstrates a level of digital conversation that is much higher than the activity shown by profiles representing the administration – the main proponents of the deal. The administration’s powerful digital push helped sell the Iran Deal domestically and abroad. It required convincing audiences of America’s commitment to enforcement and its willingness to re-impose sanctions should Iran break the deal. It also required concealing some of the more controversial aspects of the Iranian government’s policies to make it appealing enough to the general publics of both in the US and the other P5+1 countries.
The deal, though concluded diplomatically, is steeped in the context of hard power. The impetus behind the deal was to halt Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities for alleged military ends. Iran was willing to come to the table because it had suffered so dramatically from crushing economic sanctions imposed by the US and EU. These sanctions were enforced with vigilance and rigour, as evidenced by BNP Paribas’ $8 billion fine for violating them. These hard power foundations are reflected in posts by @TheIranDeal.
A majority of its content focused on the core objectives of preventing Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon, arms restrictions on Iran, and containing its post-Deal activity. However, the US, joined by its European allies and by Iran’s own representatives, aggressively pushed a softer angle to the deal by using language like “re-engaging with the international community”, “pursuing a path of cooperation over conflict”, and “political good will… exercised with sincerity, patience, and constancy”. This presentation has helped ease the image of Iran as a source of regional instability and hostility towards the West, and attempted to shift perceptions of Iran as more cooperative, open, and modernising.
As the Obama administration’s digital push has waned, the US has lost control of the narrative and soft language is now absent from the debate. The result is that Iran’s harder aspects are coming back 96 | 120 to the fore. This trend will only accelerate as concerns over security and regional stability continue to go unchallenged, now that the JCPOA is in place and the digital machinery built to promote the Iran Deal remains silent. Aiming to realise the full scope of the Iran Deal, many European powers are now making efforts to establish new economic ties with Iran, seeking out trade deals and investment opportunities.
On the flip side, hawks in the US Congress and elsewhere have only continued to push their anti-Iran rhetoric. If this rhetoric is not countered by authoritative voices pushing the soft argument, the digital battleground will remain dominated by hardliners. This could have real-world consequences for the future of the deal and full implementation. The digital push led by @TheIranDeal helps illustrate two lessons. First, that changes in image can be achieved if sufficient force is applied comprehensively across multiple outlets and digital channels – best implemented through a strategic campaign.
Second, that any shift in perception generated by a concerted communications campaign are not necessarily permanent – lasting change requires lasting effort. The Iran Deal campaign was led by the White House, but brought into the fold by the broader US government, elected political leaders, and included US allies. It was truly the first of its kind for a US digital policy push. It was strategic, collaborative, and engaging. Up to this point, it should be judged a success, but the let-up in communications around the deal may cause problems for a major diplomatic bargain that is still in the early phases of implementation.