Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to the new Clubhouse social media app on March 31 to defend Tehran's controversial recent strategic cooperation pact with China -- a deal criticized for lacking transparency and "selling out to China" amid crushing U.S. sanctions.
In past days, small scattered protests against the 25-year China deal have been reported in Tehran and several other Iranian cities -- with protesters warning that "Iran is not for sale."
Zarif's use of Clubhouse, an audio-based social media application, is seen as a way to counter those critics in Iran and abroad.
Zarif, a prolific Twitter user with a significant following on Instagram, said in his Clubhouse message that he was in discussions with Chinese officials to release details about the agreement.
He described the deal as a road map for relations between Tehran and Beijing. Zarif also noted that China has not published details of similar agreements Beijing has reached with other countries.
An 18-page document leaked online in 2020 outlined future cooperation between the countries, including Chinese investment in Iran's energy sector.
Zarif said that, despite the agreement, there are still "barriers" that make it difficult for Iran to "look to the East" and expand ties with China and other countries.
He said those obstacles include ongoing U.S. sanctions and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) -- an international financial crime watchdog that Iran has failed to comply with.
U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has offered to resume negotiations over a 2015 nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump withdrew from while imposing sanctions.
But Tehran has rejected direct talks with U.S. officials and has called for the removal of all sanctions.
"I don't believe in the [policy] of looking to the East or the West," Zarif said on Clubhouse, adding that Iran's foreign policy should be balanced and engaged with the whole world.
Zarif's decision to join Clubhouse highlighted the growing popularity of the social media application in Iran.
In recent weeks, Iranians have joined discussions in virtual "rooms" about diverse issues that have included the country's June presidential election.
Critics say Iranian authorities are using Clubhouse to present the appearance of free debate and to encourage increasingly disillusioned Iranians to vote.
Iranian Clubhouse talks have usually been attended by a few hundred people to as many as 2,000.
But Zarif's presentation quickly attracted the maximum number of 8,000 listeners in the virtual "room."
The moderator of the discussion with Zarif was later quoted as saying that officials had agreed to participate in the discussion under the condition that reporters with Persian-language media based outside of Iran would not be allowed to ask questions.
Also using the app during Zarif's presentation were Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh and Iran's Minister of Information and Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi.
Reporters with the Persian Service of the BBC and others confirmed that they were not called upon to ask questions even though they had signaled that they wanted to ask questions.
During the discussion, Zarif reiterated that he is not planning to run as a candidate for president in June – an election which comes amid a power struggle between moderate and hard-line factions of the Iranian establishment.
Following the discussion, some observers inside Iran suggested that hard-liners could push for filtering the Clubhouse app to prevent moderates and reformists from using it ahead of the vote.
Others, however, said that banning Clubhouse could turn away potential voters.
Zarif said that neither he nor Iran's information minister support the idea of filtering, "nor do we have the power to filter."
Twitter and Facebook are already filtered in Iran. Hard-liners have made calls for the blocking of the popular Instagram.
Despite such restrictions, Iranians continue to use banned social media and websites via anti-filtering tools.
Iranian activists and journalists have in past weeks organized numerous discussions on Clubhouse on issues such as the mandatory Hijab law -- which requires women to cover themselves in public.
Iran's use of solitary confinement against political prisoners has also been a topic on the new social media app.
There have also been discussions with human rights advocates, including Narges Mohammadi and politicians like former Interior Ministry official Mostafa Tajzadeh.
But the June presidential election has so far garnered little interest among ordinary Iranians who are struggling to make ends meet amid a deteriorating economy.
Earlier this week, former oil minister and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Rostam Ghasemi, a potential presidential candidate, joined a Clubhouse discussion where he answered questions from participants -- including a reporter with RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
The Clubhouse virtual "rooms" have brought together Iranians from inside and outside the country, including those from opposing political sides, reformists, and advocates of regime change.
One drawback to the social media app has been its availability only for those with an iPhone. That has limited the number of Iranians inside the country who can join.
Zarif said he joined Clubhouse with an Android phone, saying he used beta software that allows Android owners to use it.
Eghtesadonline.com predicted recently that the number of Iranians using Clubhouse could increase significantly if the social media application became available for Android phones -- the type of devices used by the majority of Iranian cell phone users.