The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter suspends account apparently linked to Iranian supreme leader, citing rules about ‘fake’ accounts

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivers a speech on Jan. 8, 2021, marking the 43rd anniversary of the revolt that ignited the Iranian Revolution. (AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Twitter permanently shut down an account that appeared to belong to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Friday after a tweet that hinted at violence against former president Donald Trump.

While a number of news agencies, along with some analysts, said that the account belonged to Iran’s leader — who retweeted the image in question from a known account among the several he uses — a spokesperson for Twitter suggested that the account of @khamenei_site had not been suspended because of the threat but because the account was fake.

“The account violated our platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically the creation of fake accounts, and has been permanently suspended,” the company said in a statement.

Trump ban by social media companies came after years of accommodation for world leaders who pushed the line

The suspension came amid a wider call to permanently ban Khamenei from the social network. Khamenei uses the site despite a ban on Twitter in Iran and amid a new wave of scrutiny on the treatment of world leaders on social media platforms after the banning of Trump this month in the aftermath of the U.S. Capitol riot, which social media companies accused Trump of inciting.

“The accounts of the Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader should be suspended from Twitter for repeatedly sending out tweets inciting violence and spewing disinformation,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director at the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran.

The @khamenei_site account had shared an aerial image of a golfer resembling Trump under a looming shadow on Thursday, with a message referring to the U.S. airstrike that killed an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad last year.

“Revenge is inevitable,” read a message accompanying the image.

Though the message did not name Trump, it was widely interpreted as a threat to the former president. Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, in January 2020.

The exact nature of the @khamenei_site account, which had only a few thousand followers, remains unclear. It was created in July 2020 and shared articles from Khamenei’s official website, including the image of the golfing man. Khamenei’s main English-language account had followed it and his Farsi-language account had retweeted it.

Brodsky noted that the image of the golfer was also shared by Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency but appeared to have later been deleted.

“Iran’s media ecosystem is using Twitter’s platform to threaten a former president of the United States. That’s unacceptable,” Brodsky added.

The computer-generated image of the golfer had also circulated earlier on Telegram, a messaging app used widely in Iran, and had been shared by accounts linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Twitter’s rules prohibit misleading “others on Twitter by operating fake accounts. This includes using misleading account information to engage in spamming, abusive, or disruptive behavior.”

Separately, Twitter’s rules state that users must “not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people” and that the “glorification of violence” also is prohibited.

In early January, Twitter removed a tweet from Khamenei’s English-language account, @khamenei_ir, that questioned the trustworthiness of U.S. and British-made coronavirus vaccines. Twitter said the tweet had broken the company’s rules against “.”

Citing further threats of violence, Twitter banned Trump on Jan. 8, two days after a failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol carried out by supporters of Trump.