State Department Briefing on the Rollout of Virtual Embassy Tehran

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 6, 2011. 

MR. HAMMER: Good afternoon, everybody. I’m pleased to have with us Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, who’s here to talk to you about the launch of our Virtual Embassy Tehran website.


UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. Good afternoon. Yes, I guess it is afternoon. Thank you very much. Thanks, Mike. I’m really delighted to be here this afternoon to highlight a few additional points to the Secretary’s previous announcement of the online opening of Virtual U.S. Embassy Tehran, which you see up on these screens. This initiative is designed to enhance our outreach to the Iranian people, notwithstanding the lack of diplomatic ties between our two governments.

When Secretary Clinton announced on VOA’s Parazit and BBC Persian our plans to create this first-ever virtual embassy, she made clear that we want to communicate directly to the people of Iran. We want all Iranians, especially the very large population of young people inside Iran, to see that the United States has deep respect for the Iranian people and its civilization. We want to support a more direct and robust engagement between us and the people of Iran, as we have in other countries where we have physical embassies. The virtual embassy is a hub in Persian and English for information not only on U.S. policy towards Iran but also a place to get insight into American culture and society, find visa applications, learn about opportunities to study in the United States.

Virtual Embassy Tehran is a launch pad for our interactive efforts, our blogs, our Persian Facebook and Twitter pages, and our YouTube channel. Unfortunately, the leadership in Iran has a track record of opposing freedom of expression, both online and on the street. The regime has tried to impose an electronic curtain by disrupting cell phones, the internet, and social media. This is one more effort to try and get around that curtain and get information directly to the Iranian people. We have long been clear in our message to the Iranian people that, notwithstanding our very strong differences with the policies and actions of their government, the United States wants a dialogue that builds trust and mutual understanding with the people themselves.

With that, I’m happy to take a couple of questions.

MR. HAMMER: Wendy has time for a couple of questions and then we’ll proceed afterwards to do a little demo on the actual site, and then Mark will begin the daily press briefing.

Matt, do you have any questions?

QUESTION: I don’t. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.

QUESTION: Can’t they just add this to the list of sites that they jam and pretty much nullify the effects of it?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: They can. But I must say, so far, it’s been up now for a few hours and they haven’t yet. And as you know, we have put resources into training people all around the world in ways to go around jamming. Many people already have private networks, virtual private networks that allow them to go through and around efforts to stop them from getting internet access. So we’ll continue to do whatever we can. We think we have the technical capability to get it back up even if it gets disrupted, and we’re committed to doing everything we can to make sure the information gets through.

QUESTION: Iranians now, if they want to come to the United States, it’s a fairly arduous process. They go to Turkey or some other third country. Do you think, with this virtual embassy, it’ll be easier for Iranians to get visas, or that there’ll be a smoother process?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, I think they’ll have information that’s accessible to them, and that always helps in not ending up doing seven steps you didn’t need to do in the first place. So it’ll still be somewhat arduous because we don’t have diplomatic relations with Iran, but we should be able to be helpful to them a little bit more as a result of this website. And we certainly want to increase the number of students who are coming here, which has gone up, I think, about 20 percent over the last period of time. And we want to continue to ensure that more and more Iranian students can come here.

MR. HAMMER: (Inaudible.) Do you want to go ahead (inaudible)?

QUESTION: Why – given that the President has tried so hard in the last three years to extend a hand to the Iranian Government and had it rebuffed, what’s to say that the start of the virtual embassy won’t make it even more difficult for the U.S. to try to establish some sort of formal relationship with Tehran?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, we have a dual-track process, as you know, a strategy of both sanctions and, in essence, what one might call coercive diplomacy and engagement with Iran, both with Iran’s people, which is exemplified by this virtual embassy, but also by saying to the Iranian people – to Iran’s Government itself, as High Representative Cathy Ashton did in her recent letter to Iranian officials, that we remain open to having serious discussions about their nuclear program if they are indeed serious and ready to have those discussions without preconditions. So far, as you pointed out, Iran has rebuffed us and they have taken continued reckless action, including the disrupted plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. And as the IAEA report recently pointed out, there continue to be grave suspicion about what they’re doing with their nuclear program and possible military-related dimensions.

But we must continue on both tracks here, to try to encourage the Iranian Government to understand that the international community, not just the United States – this is multilateralized; the Australians, in fact, today announced new sanctions of their own, for instance – that they really ought to come to the table because the international community is quite united, as evidenced by the recent IAEA resolution and the UNGA resolutions, which got vast majorities. The international community has sent a very clear message: it’s time to come to the table, take away the suspicions that the international community has, and create a future for your own people.

QUESTION: I just thought of one.

MR. HAMMER: One last one. She’s got to go, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, during – in the last administration, there was an idea to kind of go – to do this one better. And it actually – it didn’t get very far, but it was the idea of opening an interests section, an actual physical presence in Tehran. Does this replace that? Or is that idea dead in the water? Or is it still – is it something this Administration would contemplate?

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Well, I think right now where we are is that this virtual embassy allows us to supply that information. We also have the Swiss as our representing power in Tehran that can help us with some of the things that an embassy or an interests section might do on the ground. So we feel, for right now, we’re in the right place. We – of course, as we go forward, we’ll look at any and all options to deal with Iran.

MR. HAMMER: All right. Thank you very much —

QUESTION: Just one more. How many hits have you gotten just in the first couple of hours? And how do people know about it?

MR. HAMMER: I’ll have to check.

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: I’ll have to check. I don’t know.

MR. HAMMER: We’ll do a little bit more background (inaudible).

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you all very much.