With So Much
Of The Debate Hampered Ahead Of Presidential Vote,
Iranians Turn To Clubhouse
June 14, 2021
ex-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and reformist politician
Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was jailed for years in the
crackdown that followed the former's disputed 2009
reelection, have little in common.
Except, that is, their responses to their respective
bans against competing in next week's presidential vote.
Following their disqualifications by the powerful
Guardians Council, Ahmadinejad and Tajzadeh each took to
Clubhouse to denounce the clerical establishment to an
audience of several thousand Iranians.
The audio-based, invite-only social media application
has become a major platform for dialogue among Iranians
who join virtual chat rooms to hear from candidates
being allowed to run and others who haven't, citizens
boycotting the vote, and analysts, journalists, and
dissidents. Many have also joined Clubhouse's virtual
rooms in recent days to follow the presidential debates
and listen to real-time analysis.
The app remains available in Iran, where many other
social-media sites and applications are blocked, forcing
inquisitive Iranians to access them via anti-filtering
A Platform For Those Banned From Public Podiums
With virtual discussions attended by several thousand
and speakers who are often banned from public podiums,
Clubhouse has enabled dialogue among people from across
Iran's political spectrum. At the same time, it has
posed a challenge to traditional media, including the
heavily censored state-controlled television that is
off-limits to dissidents, pro-reform Iranians, and many
other perceived critics.
In one Clubhouse room recently, prominent human rights
advocate Narges Mohammadi announced that she would not
be participating in the election while, in another,
Abdolnaser Hemmati, one of the only two moderates who
have been allowed to run, attempted to convince
potential voters to cast their ballots.
Despite what domestic media have been describing as
"Clubhouse fever," its impact on the June 18 vote is
unclear. Many disaffected Iranians could boycott the
vote to protest the extreme vetting by the Guardians
Council, which blocked any prominent moderates from
running, dissatisfaction at an ailing economy crushed by
U.S. sanctions, or state repression.
Farid Modaresi, a reformist journalist and a moderator
of highly popular Clubhouse discussions, said the app's
impact cannot be ignored. "It is not big enough to bring
fundamental change, and not small enough to be without
effect," Modaresi told the Tasnim news agency. "It has
taken away the monopoly on expression of opinions from
the state TV and satellite channels."
'Thirst' For Open Dialogue
Iran researcher Tara Sepehrifar of Human Rights Watch
says the growing popularity of Clubhouse among Iranians
highlights a "thirst" for the kind of dialogue that is
impossible in formal settings where tough censorship
rules are enforced.
"I am not delusional that this is changing the landscape
because everyone is walking on thin, invisible lines,
but I think at the minimum it shows that there is a lot
of thirst for [more] dialogue than formal avenues allow
for," Sepehrifar said.
She says that due to the limitations of physical
gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic,
"Clubhouse is definitely one of the main tools for
campaigning and debate."
So far, only Hemmati, who headed the Central Bank before
embarking on his presidential campaign, and reformist
Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former vice president for sports,
have used Clubhouse to reach out to potential voters.
Hard-line candidates including presumed front-runner
Ebrahim Raisi, who has been accused of serious human
rights abuses, have so far shunned Clubhouse, where they
could face tough questioning.
Despite Iranian curbs on free speech and accusations
that Tehran is using Clubhouse to present the misleading
appearance of a free debate, politicians who have joined
Clubhouse debates in the run-up to the vote have
sometimes faced difficult questions.
Hemmati was asked about the deadly state crackdown on
anti-establishment protests in 2019 and whether as
president he would publish the numbers of those killed
in the crackdown. He said he would.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad was asked about Neda Agha Soltan,
a young woman who was shot dead in the streets of the
Iranian capital during the mass protests over his
reelection. He alleged that Agha Soltan's death was
aimed at damaging Iran, adding that he had asked the
judiciary to vigorously pursue the case.
Former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, tipped as a
potential rival to Raisi before being disqualified, was
asked by a BBC reporter on Clubhouse about his support
for a widely criticized program that was aired during
his leadership of Iranian state TV and sought to tarnish
the reputation of intellectuals and dissidents. Larijani
said he was unaware of the airing of the show and blamed
it on subordinates, but he also acknowledged that the
broadcast was a mistake.
Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who was also banned
from running, has also joined Clubhouse discussions in
recent months, as have Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad
Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic
During Zarif's appearance, in which he discussed Iran's
controversial 25-year cooperation agreement with China,
journalists from foreign-based, Persian-language media
were not allowed to ask questions due to what the
moderator later said was a demand from Iran's Foreign
Will Clubhouse Be Blocked?
was inaccessible to most Iranians in April, spawning
concerns that it was being blocked. However, it is
currently widely accessible in Iran. A government
spokesman said President Hassan Rohani's administration
was in favor of the social-media app remaining open,
while Iranian prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said
no decision had been made.
IT expert Mehdi Gheybi suggested that Clubhouse might
get blocked after the election, if it wasn't already.
"One reason is the comments by some officials about the
need to have homegrown versions of these networks,"
Gheybi told the Tabnak news site in April. The
disruptions in access to Clubhouse were another sign
that blocking, or filtering, was possible, he said,
citing a case from the past.
"Regarding [the messaging app] Viber, there were first
disruptions then it was filtered," Gheybi said.