TEHRAN — Without any ceremony or ribbon-cutting, the Obama administration on Tuesday opened its “virtual embassy” in Tehran — and, perhaps in the biggest surprise of all, it’s still open.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in October that the State Department would be opening the virtual embassy, a Web site that promotes information about U.S. policy.
The immediate speculation in Iran was that the site would be blocked by the government, which already filters out millions of other news and information sites, including CNN, not to mention sites containing sexual content, such as Playboy.
But on Tuesday, the virtual embassy appeared to be accessible, at least for now.
The Web site, in both English and Farsi, is operating under at least three different URLs, including iran.usembassy.gov.
“So far, it’s been up now for a few hours and they haven’t [blocked it],” Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters. “We think we have the technical capability to get it back up even if it gets disrupted, and we’re committed to doing everything we can to make sure the information gets through.”
The “real” U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been shut since 1979, when it was taken over by Islamic students who held 52 embassy staff members hostage for 444 days. Relations between the two nations have been severed ever since.
In an introduction to the site, the State Department said the virtual embassy was set up to provide “another perspective and another source of information, so you can make up your own minds about the U.S., our concerns and about the Iranian government’s activities at home and abroad.”
“The Iranian government, like other authoritarian regimes, tries to limit what its citizens see, hear, think, and feel by placing an ‘electronic curtain’ around its people,” the message continues. “It tries to control the content of Iranian media, limit access to the internet, monitor communication, and jam broadcasts from outside Iran. This very expensive endeavor is bound to fail in today’s increasingly interactive world.”
Even if the site is blocked — and it still could be — it may still remain accessible to Iranians using “virtual private networks,” software that allows users to reach blocked content through portals in other countries.
For now, however, the virtual embassy is open to all.
Among other information, the site provides details on how to obtain U.S. visas.
In what will likely be a disappointment to Iranians, it does little to simplify the expensive and complicated procedure.