Netanyahu (Love) Bombs Iran on Twitter: Effective Public Diplomacy or Geopolitical Trolling?

Adopting a sympathetic tone, the Israeli prime minister is reaching out to the Iranian public online and telling them he feels their pain

An Iranian cleric walks past the old main bazaar in Tehran, July 23, 2018.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

UPDATE: Trump says would meet Iranian leaders 'anytime with no preconditions'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been intensifying the frequency of his public outreach to Iran, in a kinder, gentler social media campaign that stands in contrast to President Donald Trump’s recent round of Twitter saber rattling

Whether Iranian citizens appreciate or reciprocate the concern for their well-being expressed in the four videos the Israeli premier has posted on multiple social media channels – complete with Farsi subtitles – is difficult to gauge. 

Like most courtships conducted online, when it comes to Netanyahu’s relationship with the Iranian people – as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. 

But the fact that Netanyahu has been pressing ahead with the outreach campaign for several months demonstrates he must be receiving enough feedback to believe his efforts are showing positive results. 

In his latest missive, posted late Sunday night, Netanyahu is on first-name terms with a young Iranian in a video headlined, for maximum clickability, “This is a tough story. But you need to hear it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 2018.
Marc Israel Sallem

In the message, Netanyahu tells the sad tale of a 15-year-old girl named Fatemeh. She is “smart and dreams of starting her own business,” but her daily life is full of hardships.

When she wants to fill up her water bottle before an early-morning run, the tap water is brown and sludgy. What’s more, she can’t “feel the wind in her hair” as she runs because if she dares take off her headscarf, “religious police threaten to beat her.” Then she learns school has been canceled because of dangerous air pollution levels.

Other local activities are out: Her park is full of drug dealers, she can’t buy cake at her local bakery because of a nationwide strike; and the 20th story of a high-rise near her won’t stop burning because the fire department doesn’t have proper equipment to put it out.

“Fatemeh is completely exasperated,” Bibi says, sympathetically, because the “billions wasted” by Iranian leaders on foreign adventures in Syria, Yemen and nuclear weapons development have made her life unlivable – and she can’t even vent her complaints on social media because many of the platforms are banned. 

Netanyahu ends his tale by confessing that although Fatemeh is fictional, her daily struggles are real. “If you want peace, help Fatemeh. Help the people of Iran to raise their voice against a regime that oppresses them and denies them a life of dignity, prosperity and respect,” he says.

The video sat on top of the Twitter feed of Fox News’ Sean Hannity for more than 16 hours – from Sunday night into Monday – where Trump, along with Hannity’s 3.6 million other followers, would likely spot it as they began their week. 

It was the latest in a series of videos whose messages vary slightly but contain a common theme: A video posted on May 31 called Iranians “the most gifted and successful people in the world” after they leave Iran – pointing to the large number of profitable and famous Silicon Valley companies founded by Iranian expats. The only reason they don’t experience such success in their homeland, Netanyahu asserts, “comes down to two words: the regime.” The Iranian government “wastes” money while the people suffer. 

The centerpiece of a June 10 video is an “unprecedented offer” to the Iranians who toil under their “cruel and tyrannical regime” to utilize Israel’s “cutting-edge technology” in recycling water, to help them reverse the “environmental disaster” of their drought.

The video unveils a Farsi website built in Israel that contains “detailed plans on how Iranians can recycle their wastewater,” as Israel successfully does. “Iranians shout ‘Death to Israel!’ and in response Israel shouts ‘Life to the Iranian people!’” declares Netanyahu, vowing that the “hatred” of a “cruel regime” won’t stand in the way of “respect and friendship between our two peoples.”

And then on June 26, in the midst of World Cup madness, Netanyahu – deftly catching and then clasping a soccer ball – lauded the Iranian national team for its performance at the tournament in Russia. He vowed he “will never stop advocating for the Iranian people” or hoping that the Iranian government “would stop wasting” their money on foreign adventures, and that he hoped to see Iran and Israel face off on the soccer field. “On that day, we’ll all be winners,” he declared (clearly not having seen the Israeli soccer team recently).

Iran-watchers in Israel see the campaign as a coordinated effort by the Netanyahu and Trump governments to maximize pressure on the Iranian regime for concessions.

While they are less dismissive than Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, who labeled the videos little more than “geopolitical trolling,” there is a certain skepticism among local Iran experts.

“The assessment of the U.S. administration is that there is growing pressure against the regime in Iran, the situation is growing worse and it offers a good opportunity for the United States and Israel to add even more pressure that will widen the gap between the Iranian population and the regime,” says Dr. Raz Zimmt, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. 

Zimmt says while it is unclear whether such efforts are effective, there is little danger in the attempt as long as Netanyahu and other leaders stop short of any overt call for regime change. The Israeli leader has been wise, the researcher adds, in keeping his messages soft and sympathetic. 

Iranian President Hassan Rohani, right, attending a meeting with a group of foreign ministry officials in Tehran, July 22, 2018. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is to his left.
/AP

“Even the harshest critics of the regime” don’t approve of any foreign leader – least of all Israel’s leader – calling for the overthrow of their government, notes Zimmt.  

Still, he adds, one reason Iranians may not take Netanyahu’s professed concern for their well-being seriously is the fact that he and Trump are the strongest advocates for economic sanctions against Tehran – one of the sources, though not the only one, of their plight. 

“Many would respond that if he really cared about the Iranian people, he wouldn’t advocate for sanctions,” says Zimmt. 

But Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer in Iranian affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says an important subtext to Netanyahu’s videos – which are widely viewed on a channel the Israeli government maintains on the Telegram social media platform – is that the Israeli and Iranian people have a common interest in changing their government’s priorities, while stopping short of an outright call for their overthrow.

“Netanyahu is telling the people of Iran: ‘I am the only foreign leader who really understands your problems. I sympathize with you over the fact that Iran is spending so much money on things that are a detriment to your interests – because they are also detrimental to Israel’s interests.’ He is basically telling them. ‘We have common interests: the Iranian regime’s support for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and Hezbollah, and its pursuit of a nuclear program, hurts both of our interests; it hurts your economy and it hurts our security. It hurts us both.’”

While it is a message Javedanfar expects to gain little traction with leftist Iranians who sympathize strongly with the Palestinian cause or die-hard supporters of the regime, he thinks there is still an audience willing to listen to what Netanyahu has to say. 

While only a few years ago there might have been a danger of even a subtle attack by Netanyahu acting as a boomerang, convincing Iranians to circle the wagons and defend their leadership, the regime in Iran is so despised and unpopular that there is little danger of that now, says Javedanfar.

“The regime – through its incredible incompetence in managing the affairs of the country and its terrible corruption, which is becoming a bigger problem every day – has delegitimized itself. This has caused more damage than Netanyahu and Trump ever could in their wildest dreams,” he says.