Washington D.C.- On Tuesday the United States announced the launch of its Virtual Embassy for Iran, a new website aimed at encouraging dialogue between the Iranian people and the United States. The effort is an attempt to address the lack of dialogue between the U.S. and and Iranian citizens since the closure of the physical embassy in Tehran in 1979.
“Because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, we have been deprived of opportunities for dialogue with the citizens of Iran,” said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland. “We hope to bridge the gap and promote greater understanding.”
The State Department says they “want to encourage travel to the United States” through the effort. However, the website does not replace services that a brick and mortar embassy would provide, such as visas—meaning Iranians will still have to travel outside of the country in order to apply to visit the U.S.
However, the embassy does provide information for Iranian citizens who are looking to study inside at American colleges. These resources include steps on how to obtain a student visa, websites for finding the right college, and hints on what to expect when arriving to the U.S. The website also goes over the basics of obtaining a visa for those Iranians wanting to immigrate to the U.S. permanently.
Additionally, a library of articles and reports are provided covering numerous issues including human rights, civil society, gender equality, and the importance of cultural exchange between Iranian and American citizens. Speeches and reports by U.S. officials regarding Middle East policy can also be found. In addition, there is information for U.S. citizens of Iranian descent—including how to replace a lost or stolen passport, consular fees, and how to report the death of a loved one abroad.
The website, available in both Farsi and English, follows other “virtual” outlets that have been established in the past year to facilitate direct dialogue with Iranians—including the USA Dar Farsi Twitter and Facebook page. Similar effort exists for countries like Somalia, where the U.S. lacks a diplomatic presence but has a “virtual embassy” website.
While Secretary Clinton said the website will provide a “platform for us to communicate with each other—openly and without fear,” the website was blocked by the Iranian authorities less than 24 hours after its launch. Iranian authorizes claim that the virtual embassy is a plot by the U.S. to meddle in domestic affairs.
“We did expect this [virtual embassy] to be blocked at some point,” said State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner. But, he noted, many Iranians “have software and virtual private networks that allow them to work around these kinds of blocks and to facilitate access to the internet.”
“I don’t think necessarily it can ever be a full substitute to a real operating embassy on the ground,” Toner said, “but it’s an effort for us to, because of the reality of the situation, to find other means to engage with the Iranian people.”