Middle East

Iran's supreme leader 'likes' Facebook despite ban

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Facebook page

Iran's supreme leader has notched up thousands of "likes" in the week since he opened a Facebook account. BBC Persian's Bozorgmehr Sharafedin has been looking at what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been posting and how Iranians have responded.

Ayatollah Khamenei has been active online for some time now.

He already has an official multimedia website in 14 languages, a Twitter account with more than 7,000 followers and even an Instagram photo-sharing account.

He first appeared on Facebook on 13 December, linking to a story on his website about a recent meeting he held with university professors from around the Muslim world.

Although there have been just three follow-up postings, the ayatollah seems to have attracted a lot of interest, with his tally of "likes" now standing at more than 16,000 and rising.

Many fans of the site have added positive comments in Farsi.

"I hope the likes on this page will grow so much and show the popularity of our leader to the enemies of the revolution," one said.

Critical comments removed

Away from the page, Ayatollah Khamenei's Facebook debut has generated some heated debate in the Iranian blogosphere.

Those on Facebook point out that the site is banned in Iran and that after the post-election unrest of 2009, a number of people were jailed for having Facebook accounts.

Image caption Iran's military denounced Facebook as "the West's weapon in its soft war against Iran"

In one very public sign of official disapproval for the site, the cavalcade at a big military parade in Tehran last year included a small truck bearing a huge billboard with the slogan: "Facebook - the West's weapon in its soft war against Iran."

And even some of those who have liked the ayatollah's page have underlined the contradiction.

"How come the leader can have a Facebook account and we can't?" one person asked.

There has been no official response so far to that question, but other more critical comments have been swiftly removed from the site, suggesting the ayatollah is not at this stage intending to engage in debate with fellow users.

"When Bashar Assad falls, you will be next," said another posting referring to the Syrian president which quickly disappeared.

Iranian bloggers have been making wisecracks all week about how many people the ayatollah will need to work on removing critical postings from the site.

"His excellency's Facebook page is seeking several youngsters for a 24-hour job, erasing critical/offensive comments from his account," read one spoof job advert posted online this week. "Competitive salary offered."

Authenticity questioned

In the official Iranian media, questions are still being asked about whether the ayatollah's Facebook page is genuine.

The Mehr news agency, which is close to the leadership, ran a story asking: "Who runs the leader's Facebook?"

It points out that since the Facebook account first appeared, at least five similar pages have been set up all claiming to belong to the supreme leader.

However, the fact that Ayatollah Khamanei's Twitter account posted a link to the page seems to have dispelled some doubters, as does the fact that although the account has been widely publicised and commented on, there has so far been no comment or denial from the ayatollah's office.

But how long will the supreme leader be able to maintain a similar no comment approach on Facebook - a site which is all about interaction and approval?

Next year will see presidential elections in Iran.

Many observers both inside Iran and abroad will be watching with interest how the ayatollah and his Facebook team will manage the balance between likes and criticism at such a politically sensitive time.

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