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04.10.14

Is Twitter Giving Iran's Supreme Leader Celebrity Treatment?

If you want to check out the future of the web’s most addictive social networking site, check out the celebs who are getting the web profile before the rest of us, people like John Legend, Zac Efron, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

You probably can’t get the new Twitter profile just yet. But if you want to peak into the future, check out First Lady Michelle Obama’s profile @flotus; or super-star actor @channingtatum; or Iran’s Supreme Leader @Khamenei_ir.

All three twitter profiles have the brand new profile page, with its panoramic backdrop image and a seamless display that makes the photos look like distinct tweets. But only one of those accounts represents a man who has systematically jailed, executed, and monitored his country’s democratic opposition since 1989.

While Iran has a president and civil government, real power in the Islamic Republic is wielded by the country’s clerics, and the top cleric is Khamenei. Since coming to power in 1989, Khamenei has stymied efforts from other Iranian figures to reform a political system that imposes the death penalty on gays and blasphemers. The current president Hassan Rouhani, a former hardliner who issued decrees in the 1990s banning satellite dishes, campaigned on a promise to begin releasing jailed members of Iran’s green opposition. But to this day the two main leaders of the green movement remain under house arrest and the pace of state executions has increased under Rouhani in large part because the supreme leader and a council of clerics control the state’s judiciary. 

It is particularly ironic that the Twitter feed of Iran’s autocrat would get the profile update before the rest of us. When Iranians took to the streets in 2009 to protest an election they said Khamenei had stolen, Twitter was on their side. The social media company delayed routine maintenance scheduled during the peak of the uprising at the request of the State Department. In the west, users adorned their profile pictures with green ribbons to show solidarity with the opposition known as the green movement. Now, the villain of 2009 is just another big shot getting the good stuff before the rest of us.

Khamenei’s account is not verified like that of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif (@Jzarif) or its president, Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani). Also @Khamenei_Ir only has 49,400 followers, a number that seems low for the man who presides over what the State Department has deemed the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

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Via Instagram

Nonetheless, Iran watchers believe its real. In June 2013, the Associated Press reported the @Khamenei_ir feed was believed to be run by the supreme leader’s office. A western diplomat who has consulted with his country’s intelligence agency on the matter said the account was operated by Khamenei’s media office in Qom.

In many ways the feed looks exactly like something a twenty-something Iranian with near fluent English working for the Supreme Leader would create. @Khamenei_ir only follows three other accounts: one that belongs to the supreme leader’s media office, another for his Farsi language feed, and one belonging to @IRKhomeini, a user that posts sayings of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

There are a lot of official press release tweets. On April 7, Khamenei’s account unleashed 14 tweets in a row announcing his new Health policy. This week he tweeted about his meeting with Azerbaijan’s leader:

A user that goes by “Jesus is Lord” tweeted ten times in response to that one, but no response from @Khamenei_ir. (Come on, he’s the supreme guide of the world’s only Shi’ite Islamic Republic.)

Khamenei’s account doesn’t tweet replies and only appears to retweet his predecessor's aphorisms at @IRKhomeini.

As one might expect from a head of state that purports to hold authority over the souls of its citizens, there is a lot of life style advice. On April 6 the account issued a tweet extolling the virtues of sports that probably could have used a #protip:

Occasionally, Khamenei’s office likes to tweet zingers aimed at the Great Satan:

Sometimes the account can drive the news cycle. On Wednesday, ahead of the new round of nuclear negotiations for Iran in Vienna, Austria, the supreme leader’s account posted a tweet that said no Iranian negotiator has a right to trade away his country’s “nuclear achievements”:

A blog post from Twitter announcing the new profile page said the rest of its users will be getting the new profile in the coming weeks. However, “this new profile setup is available today to a small group of users”. In some cases that small group of users were selected, but other accounts received the new profile at random. The Daily Beast’s tech and health editor, Tessa Miller (like Channing Tatum and Iran’s supreme leader) also has the new profile.

A spokesperson for Twitter, Christina Thiry, declined to comment for the piece or say what percentage of random Twitter users received the new profile in the early roll out.