News / Middle East

US Opens 'Virtual Embassy' for Iran

The United States Tuesday officially opened the “Virtual U.S. Embassy Tehran,” an interactive website aimed at providing services and information to Iranians despite the lack of diplomatic relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls it a vehicle for Americans and Iranians to communicate without fear.

Secretary Clinton announced plans for the unprecedented Internet project in an interview with Voice of America’s Persian service in late October.

The website became operational early Tuesday, displaying a video message from the Secretary of State, who said it aims to help bridge the gap between the two peoples that opened when diplomatic relations were severed more than 30 years ago.

“This is a platform for us to communicate with each other, openly and without fear, about the United States, about our policies, our culture and the American people. You can also find information here about opportunities to study in the United States, or to obtain a visa to come visit us," she said.

State Department officials say the virtual embassy will reduce, at least somewhat, the difficulty Iranians encounter in arranging travel to the United States.

They will still have to visit Persian-speaking U.S. visa sections in Ankara, Abu Dhabi and Dubai to obtain travel documents but now they can do much of the application process on-line.

The website also streamlines procedures for Iranians  seeking to study at U.S. colleges and universities, with the aim of increasing the Iranian student population in the United States. The number currently exceeds 5,000.

At a roll-out event for the virtual embassy, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said it is an effort to skirt the “electronic curtain” erected by the Tehran government to block Internet links between Iranians and the outside world.

She said there had been no attempt by Iran to jam the U.S. website in its initial hours of operation. But said there are contingency plans in case that happens.

“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," she said.

The virtual embassy includes information on U.S. policy on Iran and challenges what a senior official here termed “pervasive myths”, among them that U.S. policy aims to overthrow Iran’s government, that it opposes Iran’s development of peaceful nuclear energy, and that U.S. nuclear sanctions are to punish the Iranian people.

Iranians are invited to contribute comments and criticism through links to State Department Twitter and Facebook accounts provided on the new website.

Iran responded caustically to Clinton’s initial announcement of the virtual embassy with parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani saying the project is doomed to failure.

But a State Department official expressed confidence the new project will be popular, saying a State Department Persian Facebook page created earlier this year has already had about one million “hits.”

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1980, after militant supporters of Iran’s Islamic revolution stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 Americans hostage for more than a year.

Iran has had a diplomatic “interests section” in Washington, technically part of the Pakistani embassy, for several years which handles consular, passport and other matters for Iranian nationals in the United States.

The new U.S. virtual embassy website can be viewed in English iran.usembassy.gov and in Persian at persian.iran.usembassy.gov.

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