Frenemies: Social Media and Iran-US Relations

The disputed 2009 election in Iran resulted in a number of political realignments: while some figures and factions doubled down, much of the establishment and its supporters were shaken. This instability was reflected in the digital arena, where one’s position on the election and its aftermath served as a litmus test beyond which further conversation was shut down. Rouhani’s election in 2013 and the developments in the nuclear negotiations with the United States brought another kind of political uncertainty for hardline supporters of the ruling establishment, who now had to deal with the recuperation of their two main foes: the United States and the reformists. Rather than serving as clarification or reassurance, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s pronouncements on the negotiations and the administration’s negotiators have fueled further confusion. Unlike centralized media platforms such as state television and official websites that can be used to present a unified domestic position, social media reveal the internal tensions around emerging international dynamics. This paper considers the changes in Iran’s Internet culture following the election of Rouhani with a focus on how social media have become sites where political inconsistencies around the US-Iran negotiations are exposed and negotiated. While anxieties around shifts in the Iran-US relationship are most evident among hardliners, similar concerns abound among American social media contributions, including those of Iranian-Americans. The paper also examines this broader context and what it reveals about the role that social media plays in shaping how Iranians and Americans interact both directly and symbolically online and off.