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Canada ramps up its Iranian experiment Add to ...

The Canadian government’s novel experiment in anti-diplomacy kicks into second gear today.

It will take the form of digital initiative to keep watch on Iran’s presidential election, the first since the 2009 vote that sparked the Green Movement protests, and then a government crackdown. For this election, which starts with first-round voting Friday and continues through a June 21 runoff, there’ll be a Canadian-funded observation centre online.

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Among other things, it will include streamed Farsi-language election-night broadcasts and an interactive map that will track crowd-sourced reports of elections irregularities reported by Iranians on social media sites.

But from its inception, the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, funded by the Foreign Affairs department and organized by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs has been an unusual experiment.

It’s not just that it’s public diplomacy, or uses a digital portal and social media instead of diplomats. It’s that it’s not aimed at improving relations with a foreign government, but rather at sidestepping that government entirely to speak to the people. And at bottom, the Canadian government is trying to create tools to foster a movement for change in another country.

It grew, in a sense, out of the Harper government’s move to suspend diplomatic ties with Iran. Ottawa had decided that bridge was burned, and cast around for other ways to deal with Iran.

The first phase of the Global Dialogue was a conference last month on the issues facing Iran, kicked off by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, that used social media links to allow Iranians to join in and security measures to protect their identity. It was, as one government official called it, a “talk shop,” but the twist was that it would reach Iranians, and the Iranian diaspora.

The Munk School’s director, Janice Stein, said 365,000 people logged in from inside Iran. Government officials said the initiative faced a number of “malicious connection” attempts they believe were Iranian-government efforts at disruption.

Now, the second initiative, which goes online Thursday, is aimed at monitoring the first presidential elections since the Green Movement, which grew out of protests against election-rigging, and sparked a crackdown.

The Munk Centre, working with the National Democratic Institute, the American NGO with a long track record in monitoring elections, will scour Farsi-language social media posts to produce a crowd-sourced map of election irregularities – intimidation, vote-buying, and so on – by scraping social media sites and tracking media reports.

In other words, they’re trying to collate Iranians’ social media chatter about the elections into a comprehensive picture of what’s going on, and show it to the world. Similar crowd sourcing will be used to create a daily monitoring report on the elections.

But there are other aspects that will go beyond monitoring. There will be streamed video, featuring experts, dissidents, and Iranian expats, doing something akin to an election night broadcast on June 14, as well as post-election video clips with interviews.

The idea, according to Canadian officials, is to use a time when Iranians are thinking more than usual about their political system to get them into a discussion about democracy, and the issues facing Iran. They also want to help the splintered groups of Iranian dissidents inside and outside the country to connect to each other.

It is definitely an innovation. Whether a portal sponsored by a foreign government will be seen as more than propaganda remains an open question. Ms. Stein argues that the Munk School’s openness to all Iranian views will ensure its credibility.

But the underpinning of the initiative has sparked different reactions. Some, such as former Canadian ambassador to Iran John Mundy, argue that when Mr. Baird opened the initiative with a message of support for Iranian dissidents, Canada turned its back on any hope of diplomacy with Tehran and adopted a policy of regime change.

But Ms. Stein argued that Canada is building a new model for diplomacy, and that Canada, having cut diplomatic ties, can fill a need. “Because other government are constrained. They’re putting the diplomatic relationship first.”

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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