With So Much Of The Debate Hampered Ahead Of Presidential Vote, Iranians Turn To Clubhouse

Iranian 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 tools.

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.


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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.

Unfettered 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.


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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 Energy Organization.

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 Ministry.


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Will Clubhouse Be Blocked?

Clubhouse 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.

Clubhouse did not respond to RFE/RL's questions about how many users it has in Iran or any potential concerns of filtering.