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The Canadian government is backing a digital-age conference on the future of Iran that intends to beam the views of dissidents into the country via social media, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird kicking it off.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Harper government is launching an effort to reach Iranians through the Internet and social media nine months after cutting diplomatic ties to Tehran.

It's Ottawa's first substantial foray into digital "direct diplomacy," with a bid to bypass Iran's government and offer a platform to dissidents and human rights activists. The initiative was launched during the run-up to the country's June 14 presidential elections.

The Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran was hosted by the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, but sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs with $250,000 in public money. And it was kicked off with a speech by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who said "we want to expand our relations with Iranians, free from the regime's filters."

The initiative provides the Harper government with an outlet for criticism of the Iranian regime even after Ottawa suspended diplomatic ties, imposed sanctions, and declared Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. Mr. Baird's speech attacked the country's "clerical, military dictatorship," abuses of human rights, the country's nuclear program and its powerful Revolutionary Guard.

The idea is to stream the content into Iran, and around the world, over the Internet – and then to encourage Iranians to join in with comments and questions through social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook. And the plan is to keep doing it over the next two years.

"This is the first major experience of direct digital diplomacy that Canada has engaged in," said Munk School director Janice Stein. "It's primary purpose is to bring Iranians into the conversation."

The Global Dialogue consisted mostly panels of experts, human rights activists and dissidents who have left Iran, but with social-media and e-mail questions and comments added from inside Iran and elsewhere; organizers said they have been in contact with Iranian-Canadians and others now living outside the country to try to reach their networks inside Iran. Government officials said the University of Toronto had taken security measures to try to protect the identities of Iranians, and connections through mass-audience social-media channels would make it harder for Iranian authorities to trace them.

How much content will get through remains an open question. The Iranian regime regularly uses "throttling" mechanisms to slow Internet downloads by its citizens and, with the election looming, has this week taken additional measures that effectively cut off foreign Internet streams after about a minute, Canadian government officials said. The content will remain posted in the hope that clips can reach Iranians later. "There was a significant number of questions in Farsi coming from inside Iran," Ms. Stein said, though she said she could not immediately provide figures.

The timing of the launch, just as the Iranian presidential election campaign is taking shape, is no coincidence. Mr. Baird said in his speech that Western countries watched Iranian protesters in 2009 "outraged by a stolen election that mocked their right to choose," but should have done more to support them.

Government officials described the Global Dialogue as an effort to provide a platform for debate on issues such as the economy and human rights that would normally get an airing in an election campaign, but can't be discussed fully in Iran.

Iran's last presidential election in 2009 sparked the Green Movement protests from activists who charged that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fraudulently re-elected. It grew into a broader campaign for reform that was violently repressed by Iranian security forces.

It's widely believed that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is anxious to ensure there is no repeat of the Green Movement protests, and opposes the rumoured plan of Mr. Ahmadinejad – barred by law from running for a third term – to back a close associate for the presidency. It's expected that three of Ayatollah Khamenei's close supporters will run, with two backing out to support the leading candidate among them.

Even without fraud, Iran's presidential elections are not an all-out race for the top job. The Supreme Leader remains the most powerful figure in the country, and election candidates must be vetted first by the country's Council of Guardians, which has in the past barred several reformists on the grounds that they are not fully dedicated to Islamic values.

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