Even Officials Used Banned Platforms in Iran Resignation Saga

(Bloomberg) -- The Iranian foreign minister’s on-again, off-again resignation played out across two tense days on the very social media platforms that are either banned in his country or possibly headed that way.

Mohammad Javad Zarif got the whole thing rolling by posting his resignation around midnight Monday on Instagram, which isn’t banned -- though efforts to do so are in the works. An online feeding frenzy followed, thanks to virtual private networks that are commonly used in Iran to sidestep bans on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

When hardline media opposed to Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate government reported that the two men had a falling-out, the presidential office shot back on Twitter, posting a photo of them with a caption saying the foreign minister has the president’s “full satisfaction."

Other politicians rushed to Twitter and Instagram to take sides. On Tuesday, Iranians who support Zarif’s opposition to confrontation with the West despite new U.S. sanctions went wild on Twitter under the hashtag #ZarifStay.

Social media is a sensitive issue in Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has referred to it as a tool to propagate enemies’ “immoral" ideology and taint the heart and minds of young, pious Iranians. Telecommunications Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, himself a millennial, has come under pressure from hardliners to step down for failing to rein in the use of messaging apps.

But the Zarif resignation saga is testament to the impossibility of dictating limits to online access, even in a country as tightly controlled as Iran. The nation of 80 million sees online media as a way of life, and even the government has learned how to use it to its benefit.

As for Zarif, he backed down, following a shout-out from lawmakers, Rouhani and even the Revolutionary Guards, an institution widely seen as chipping away at the Foreign Ministry’s influence.

He hinted -- on Instagram -- that he would resume his job, then journalists confirmed it on Twitter with photos showing him back at work, welcoming the Armenian prime minister on a state visit.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.