Twitter is banned in Iran but anybody who is anybody uses it.
The Islamic Republic’s hatred for Twitter and other social networking sites is well documented.
After the disputed presidential election in 2009, senior officials declared that Twitter was a threat to national security, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the West of using the social networking site to try to overthrow the regime.
Since then, other Iranian officials have regularly parroted the ayatollah. “The number one platform for terrorist operations and communications in the world is Twitter,” Brigadier General Kamal Hadianfar, head of the Iranian Cyber Police, said recently. And Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, deputy to Iran’s Prosecutor General, insisted that authorities would continue to block the site.
And yet, many officials in Iran, including the Supreme Leader and the president, are registered Twitter users.
Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace has instructed a workgroup to filter Twitter, but to further enhance this operation, some of Twitter’s most vociferous opponents have also obtained an order from the Iranian judiciary stating that if the workgroup changes its mind and lifts the ban on the site, it will still be blocked.
Despite these measures, Twitter’s popularity has grown rapidly in Iran, and has become the most important platform for Iranians to gather news, discuss and debate — and this includes Iranian hardliners as well. Twitter has become a virtual public square for rallies, protests, hashtag storms, a place where people demand their rights, fact-check the media, and share knowledge and information. Twitter can help close the gap between citizens and authorities (or appear to do so), and Iranians regularly go on to Twitter to challenge reports or ask questions that they have no chance of asking offline or in person. Discussions between ordinary citizens — many of them using pseudonyms — and government officials and members of parliament are now routine. And of course, the online battles — virtual street fights in some instances — are ubiquitous.
Government Officials and Politicians
Hessamoddin Ashna, President Rouhani’s cultural advisor, is one politician who is very active on Twitter. He occasionally tweets his grievances against parliament or opponents of Rouhani’s administration — and against reformists too, with whom he does not have good relations. Ashna has more than 40,000 followers and his tweets usually trigger a wave of responses from both conservatives and reformists.
Perhaps one of the most famous Iranian politicians on Twitter is Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. His account, the profile of which features a smiling photograph of the minister, has 784,000 followers. He became particularly popular after the nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, and followers regularly retweet his comments. On Twitter, he limits what he discusses to foreign policy matters, although recently he has been less active.
Eshagh Jahangiri, vice president to President Rouhani, has been very active on Twitter in recent months. He has close to 60,000 followers and is popular with reformists. Sometimes he plays the role of a virtual punching bag for the opponents of Rouhani, as he tends to do offline as well.
The highest government official on Twitter is President Hassan Rouhani himself; he has 504,000 followers. After each political dustup he experiences, Iranians go on to Twitter to get his take on whatever quarrel has taken place, though he doesn’t always tweet about it. Once in a while he retweets other people’s tweets, but he does not respond to others’ tweets.
The most active and perhaps the most popular among the reformist tweeters is Mahmoud Sadeghi, one of Tehran’s representatives to parliament. With his protests against the so-called “astronomical properties case,” corruption within Tehran Municipality, and his insistence that the house arrests of Green Movement leaders is illegal, Sadeghi has made his views known more candidly than other office-holders. He has close to 100,000 followers and is one of the few politicians who takes answering tweets seriously and communicates directly with his audience.
The maverick Ali Motahari, another representative from Tehran and parliament’s deputy speaker, has more than 77,000 followers, although he is not as active as Sadeghi. Once in a while he posts a controversial tweet and then disappears.
Among former reformist officials, Mostafa Tajzadeh, former interior minister under President Mohammad Khatami and his political advisor, is one of the best-known and active figures on Twitter. After the 2009 presidential election, Tajzadeh spent seven years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.” He has close to 55,000 followers and regularly engages on Twitter, putting forward his critical views about Iranian politics and society.
Reformist Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami’s spokesman during his second term, has close to 20,000 followers. He tweets mostly in the form of questions and sometimes provides journalists with clues about stories in the news about which he has inside knowledge.
Another reformist figure active on Twitter is Ataollah Mohajerani, who held the job of Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance during Khatami’s first term. He lives in London and has 30,000 followers. In recent years, Mohajerani has written many controversial tweets defending certain policies of the Islamic Republic. He is always under harsh attack by opponents of the Islamic Republic, and although he is known as a reformist, the conservative principlists are happy to use his tweets as a means of proving that the policies of Ayatollah Khamenei are correct and effective.
The Conservatives (or Principlists)
The most important conservative figure on Twitter is, of course, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He has three Twitter accounts, in Persian, English and Arabic. His Persian account has 70,000 followers, 5,560 people follow his Arabic account, and surprisingly, more than 330,000 follow him in English. His office administers the accounts as a tool of diplomacy. Opponents of the Islamic Republic constantly send messages to the admins of his page but, unsurprisingly, they get no answers.
Senior principlist figure Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Khamenei’s advisor and former speaker of the parliament, has 38,000 followers. He is not particularly active on Twitter, but when he does tweet, it usually makes the news, mainly because he has been a controversial political figure.
More active than Haddad-Adel, Mohsen Rezaee, the former Revolutionary Guards commander and the current secretary of the Expediency Council, has close to 50,000 followers. He spends his Twitter time attacking the political opposition and, in recent days, threatening Donald Trump.
Two other well-known principlist figures on Twitter are Ahmad Tavakoli, former member of parliament and minister of labor, who has more than 22,000 followers, and Elias Naderan, another former member of parliament. He has more than 13,000 followers and his tweets are often controversial.
Ezzatolah Zarghami, the former head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), has around 18,000 followers, but he has not attracted much attention with his run-of-the-mill tweets. Mostafa Mir-Salim ran as a principlist candidate in the 2017 presidential election, and has fewer than 400 followers, but he has proved to be aa popular subject for other people’s tweets.
And then there is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He joined Twitter in March ahead of this year’s presidential election, apparently hoping to boost the chances of his allies — despite the fact that it was his administration that blocked Twitter in the first place. Ahmadinejad has close to 40,000 followers, and tweets in English. He does not follow anyone back, and rarely addresses Iranian issues, choosing to stick with more global trends.
Iranian journalists are of course a prominent group on Twitter. Ameneh Shirafkan is the parliamentary correspondent for the newspaper Shargh and the magazine Zanan-Emrooz. She has over 27,000 followers and was one of several journalists who ran as a candidate for Tehran’s City Council in 2017, though she did not make it to the reformists’ final list.
Bahman Daroshafaei is an Iranian-British journalist, translator and documentary filmmaker. He became known as a blogger and later joined BBC Persian Service, but in 2013 left BBC and returned to Iran. In early 2016, he was placed under arrest and received a wave of support on Twitter. He has 12,500 followers. In August 2017, Iran’s judiciary targeted Daroshafaei and at least 151 other people who currently or formerly worked for BBC Persian, freezing their assets and banning them from “conducting transactions.”
Journalist Hossein Norouzi writes for children and young adults and has more than 33,000 followers. His satirical tweets about his daily life are very popular.
Sobhan Hassanvand is a journalist with the newspaper Iran, which is published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). He tweets about political and cultural issues and has close to 17,000 followers.
Shabnam Rahmati, the social editor of the newspaper Iran, has close to 46,000 followers. She tweets about news and social and political issues.
Journalist Saba Azarpeik no longer works for a news agency or the print media, but she is one of the most active Iranian journalists on Twitter. She has more than 22,000 followers, and her tweets regularly enrage principlists. Azarpeik was detained for three months in 2014.
Sadra Mohaghegh is the social editor of the reformist newspaper Shargh and produces videos and other multimedia content. He tweets mostly about the environment and tourism. Close to 70,000 people follow him on Twitter. In 2016, Mohaghegh was arrested on grounds that he had cooperated with anti-Iranian media outside Iran. He was released a few weeks later.
Marzieh Rasouli is a journalist reporting on art and culture. She follows social and political issues with a critical eye and has 22,000 followers. She actively follows the situation for Iranian women on Twitter. Rasouli was arrested in 2012, and later sentenced to two years in jail. She was released on October 29, 2014.
Nahid Molavi, who works for the newspaper Etemad, has more than 20,000 followers. She reports on politics, social issues, women and history.
Yashar Soltani is the editor-in-chief of Memari (“Architecture”) News. An investigative reporter, Soltani was arrested in September 2016 for exposing corruption at Tehran Municipality. He has more than 36,000 followers and although he is not very active on Twitter, he always has an attentive audience.
Hossein Darakhshan, who is known to international audiences because of his links to the early days of Iranian blogging and his arrest in 2008, has close to 13,000 followers. A writer and translator, Darakshan tweets about the media, politics and Iranian foreign policy.
Iranian actors are also active on Twitter. Taraneh Alidoosti is a famous actress with feminist leanings. With 146,000 followers, she often joins the Twitter campaigns of other well-known figures from Iranian cinema.
Siamak Ansari is an actor known mostly for his comic talent, and his tweets follow a satirical line as well. He has more than 120,000 followers but does not join Twitter campaigns. Occasionally his tweets can be construed as attempts to indirectly address a topical issue.
Actress Mahnaz Afshar has close to 100,000 followers. She tweets about social issues and is the spokeswoman for a group that supports children’s rights and promotes their welfare. She regularly participates in Twitter campaigns on social issues.
Local activism on single issues has led to at least two Iranian campaigners gaining a significant following on Twitter. One of them is Navid Borhanzehi, from the underprivileged province of Sistan and Baluchistan. He has more than 6,000 followers and tweets about problems besetting his province. Perhaps surprisingly, his tweets have led to an increase in visitors to the province.
The second activist with a strong following is a park ranger who does not use his name but goes by the handle @1mohitban, although his photograph appears on his Twitter profile. He writes about the deaths of park rangers in the line of duty and the problems that he and his colleagues face. He often addresses President Rouhani in his tweets, pointing out environmental issues to him. Close to 10,000 people follow him.
Both reformist and conservative clergymen have also started to go on Twitter. Two of them have been particularly popular, and their tweets are regularly shared across social networks.
Abolfazl Najafi Tehrani has close to 15,000 followers and his tweets regularly criticize the policies of the Islamic Republic. In the 2017 presidential election, he supported Hassan Rouhani and he is against the continued house arrests of the Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard.
Hossein Kazeruni is a principlist clergyman. His Twitter bio describes him as a “news media activist, journalist and cultural activist.”He supports the policies of the Islamic Republic and the military presence of Iran in Syria. He has more than 10,000 followers.
Iranian Twitter users outside the country fall into different categories. Some have many followers, others are effective in Twitter campaigns, while others are known for individual tweets.
Ali Alizadeh, who tweets in Persian and English, is an analyst and political activist. His tweets supporting the Islamic Republic are often commented on by other Twitter users. In the past, he has been known as a leftist analyst, but a few years back he has changed his position, and he is now squarely behind the Islamic Republic. Alizadeh has 25,000 followers.
Alireza Namvar Haghighi is a former senior media advisor to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He now lives in Canada and is a lecturer at University of Toronto’s Department of Historical Studies. His tweets reflect a reformist tendency. He has close to 11,000 followers.
Masoud Behnoud is a prominent Iranian journalist who now lives in London. He has more than 45,000 followers and his tweets are both praised and criticized extensively and regularly.
There are also many Iranian Twitter users based outside Iran who are unabashedly and completely against the Islamic Republic regime. One is Amir Hossein Etemadi, the spokesman for Iranian Liberal Students & Graduates group, who urged people to boycott the 2017 presidential election in Iran. He also supports the US stance toward Iran. He has fewer than 4,000 followers, but his tweets are retweeted extensively.
Nikahang Kowsar, a prominent Iranian-Canadian cartoonist, journalist and blogger, opposes the Islamic Republic. He is not a very active tweeter, but still has close to 77,000 followers.
The BBC and Radio Farda
Many journalists who work with news services such as BBC Persian and Radio Farda, the Persian service of Radio Free Europe, have large followings on Twitter.
Amir Paivar, an economy correspondent for BBC Persian, is among them, and has 120,000 followers. He generally writes about Iranian economy and sometimes about Iran’s foreign policy. He was especially active and popular on Twitter during the nuclear negotiations, when he tweeted directly from the site of the talks.
Bahman Kalbasi, a BBC correspondent who lives in New York, has 112,000 followers and mostly tweets about Iranian politics and foreign policy. Occasionally he also tweets about US politics and social issues.
Hossein Bastani is a producer with BBC Persian and has more than 50,000 followers. His tweets focus mainly on Iranian domestic politics and his political analysis is very popular.
Mehdi Parpanchi is the host of BBC Persian’s “Page 2” program. He has 106,000 followers and his critical tweets usually invite a good range of reactions.
Nima Akbarpour has 137,000 followers and is a presenter of the “Persian Click” technology show on BBC Persian. His tweets are also mostly about technology.
Niki Mahjoub, a BBC Persian journalist who tweets about Iran’s domestic policies and social issues, has more than 14,000 followers and is very active on Twitter.
Hadi Nili, with more than 23,000 followers, is a BBC field reporter who writes mostly about Iran’s foreign policy and its relations with the United States.
Kayvan Hosseini is a journalist with more than 14,000 followers who works with Radio Farda and writes about social and political issues, history and politicians.
Several Iranian journalists based outside Iran who work as freelancers or for independent media also attract a large following. In general, they have more freedom when expressing their views on Twitter.
Farnoosh Amirshahi is a Prague-based journalist who writes about politics and gender politics. She has fewer than 2,000 followers, but her articles and her tweets have won her many fans.
Arash Bahmani is a journalist who specializes in Iranian domestic politics and is a good source for breaking news. He has more than 35,000 followers and is very active in Twitter campaigns and setting up hashtags.
Reza HaghighatNejad is an IranWire journalist who writes about Iranian politics. He has more than 40,000 followers on Twitter.
Kambiz Hosseini is an independent journalist and a host of popular satirical programs on TV and radio. “I live in NY and make fun of Iranian politicians for a living!” is how he introduces himself on his Twitter page. He has 227,000 followers.
Influential Individuals Outside Iran
Apart from journalists and politicians, there are other figures who tweet about human rights or have influence because of their political activities or writing.
Aida Ahadiany, who introduces herself as “a full-time sarcastic human being and a part-time author, screenwriter and blogger,” lives in Toronto and has close to 30,000 followers. Ahadiany takes part in Twitter campaigns and retweets messages about Iranian social and cultural issues.
Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour is a research fellow at Harvard University and a political activist. He has more than 12,000 followers and is known as a reformist. He tweets mostly about Iranian domestic politics.
Madyar Samienejad is a human right activist who works with Amnesty International, Norway. He was an early user of Twitter, signing up in 2009, and has 17,7000 followers. His tweets focus on human rights violations in Iran, and especially on the death penalty.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and commentator and has 119,000 followers. She tweets mostly in English.
The list below is of people who appear to be based outside of Iran, and whose identities are not known. These individuals have not stated what they do for a living, or where they live. Because they use pseudonyms, they often come across as more effective in conveying their ideas — probably because their secret identities make it easier for them to express themselves more freely.
Agh Bahman (“Master Ahmad”) has more than 21,000 followers and views political issues with a reformist eye. He has a satirical style and is active in Twitter campaigns.
Ayatollah Tanasoli (Ayatollah “Genitalia”) has more than 35,000 followers and regularly challenges the policies of the Islamic Republic, its politicians and the Iranian clergy using satire. It is reported that more than one person runs the Ayatollah Tanasoli account, although some people speculate that it is a cover for a single journalist.
Persian Banoo (“Persian Lady”) made a name for herself online through her coverage of events following the 2009 presidential election. She mostly tweets about the conditions of political prisoners, human rights and policies of the Islamic Republic. Persian Banoo is active in Twitter campaigns and has 27,000 followers.
DavoT has 17,000 followers and tweets mostly about politics. He also takes part in Twitter campaigns.
Mr. Diplomat has more than 29,000 followers. He is active in Twitter campaigns about politics and violations of human rights. His tweets are often satirical.
Hr. 13 has close to 11,000 followers and mostly tweets about politics, science and the environment. He introduces himself as “Tired Devil, Retired God, Atheist, Feminist, Expert in Sustainable Infrastructure.”
Café, “Expert on ‘Damned’ Middle East Issues,” was an early Twitter user and tweets about political and social issues. There have been many speculations about Café’s identity, but no one has exposed it in any verifiable way. Café has close to 67,000 followers and participates in Twitter “waves.”
With 83,000 followers, Mamlekate, “dedicated to breaking news, politics and entertainment in Iran & around the world,” is a well-known and very active account. The account introduces itself as a distributor for “proxies” in Iran, which are used to break internet filters. Mamlekate also runs a Telegram channel, and enjoys a strong following on that platform as well.
Vahid Online, the “Curious Internet Citizen” and “Netizen, News Lover, Media Watcher, Social Media Observer,” has been using Twitter since 2007 and, using the same pseudonym and the same picture, has been familiar to most Iranians who have been using social networking sites for a number of years. With 181,000 followers on Twitter, Vahid Online also has a Telegram channel, which is also very popular with Iranians.
Velgard (“Tramp”), with more than 20,000 followers, is very active on Twitter and writes mostly about politics. Velgard is a supporter of reformists and President Rouhani.
Kevin Miston tweets about internet security and helps educate people about how to use the internet safely and securely. He has more than 8,000 followers.