Twitter Diplomacy as a Tool for Promoting Foreign Policy: UK – Iran Case Study

Angelina A. Malasenkova,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Ilya R. Lavrov,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


The digital era has radically transformed the way power is exercised. The changes affected domestic governance mechanisms as well as the sphere of international relationship. The article studies the foreign politics realm. The topicality of the thesis is focused on the growing role of digital technologies in diplomacy and consequently the transformation of related institutes. With new forms of resolving international conflicts appearing, the study examines Twitter Diplomacy as the most popular tool in promoting foreign policy. The authors implemented the method of content analysis to the study. The case concerns the recent conflict between the United Kingdom and Iran in maritime space. The study focuses on the comparison of positions of both states. It examines the link between the number of tweets and the issue of the agenda. The authors analyzed the tweets of the ministers for international affairs of the parties to the conflict to provide an insight into how the officials stand for the interests of their countries and how they recognize the opponents.

Key words: twitter diplomacy, digital era, transformation, Gulf Crisis, Iran, The United Kingdom, Jeremy Hunt, Javad Zarif, ship seizure

Main body

The way politics is exercised has radically transformed since the world community entered the digital era. The reality shows that changes affected domestic governance mechanisms as well as the sphere of international relationship. The study is focused on the foreign politics realm. The growing role of digital technologies in diplomacy resulted in its transformation. The new forms of resolving international agendas appear. One of the most popular within politicians and public is Twitter Diplomacy.

According to the Hedley’s Bull definition, diplomacy is “the conduct of relations between states and other entities with standing in world politics by official agents and by peaceful means” (Bull, 1997). This classical definition provides the ground for the succeeding researches in the international relations realm. Diplomacy is still considered to be grounded on personal relations (Duncombe, 2017). However, it is important to highlight the role of technologies in terms of world security and global governance. Digital dimension became essential in identifying threats and finding solutions to the problems (Duncombe, 2017).

Brian Hocking and Jan Melissen in their book “Diplomacy in the Digital Age” (Hocking, Melissen, 2015) point out that the digital era has had a major impact on the diplomacy, changing the forms in which the diplomacy is conducted as well as its structures on all levels. Major debates in the digital age focus on social media but there is a lack of definitional precision and, as a result, there are a lot of misunderstandings. There are two opposite ways of looking at the position of diplomacy in the digital era: 1) adaptation within the current frameworks and 2) denial of common rules and norms. Diplomacy became a visible social institution, thanks to the societal transformation in the early 21st century. The implementation of technologies in different forms (e-diplomacy, digital diplomacy, cyber diplomacy and ‘twiplomacy’) is one of the main goals for any institution of diplomacy, because the performance of its functions, such as negotiation, representation and communication, can be taken to another level, thanks to the progress of IT in the digital era. Without digitalization governments are not able to satisfy the global and national needs, that is why this process is crucial for every state but it is not as simple as it may look. Digital diplomacy is more than just using social media for some diplomatic functions, authorities should not apply ‘analogue’ habits and norms to the new era. The meaning of diplomacy doesn’t change in the modern world, it is still based on the diplomatic practice, but social media became a new tool for serving specific diplomatic functions.

The importance of digital diplomacy is marked highly by Ilan Manor in the work “Are We There Yet: Have MFAs Realized the Potential of Digital Diplomacy?” (Manor, 2016). The main benefits of digital diplomacy are 1) practicing “new” public diplomacy by engaging foreign population (masses, not elites) in discussions of current affairs and by building relationships with foreign publics; 2) managing national image, reputation and branding the nation; 3) demonstrating commitment to dialogue and confronting criticism by holding regular online Q&A sessions; 4) overcoming limitations of traditional diplomacy such as creating soft power resources, conversing with foreign publics in enemy states; and finally 5) framing the nation, thanks to direct feedback from citizens and the creation of a common interpretation of events. Nowadays diplomats use social media mostly in order to have an impact only on the elite audiences, the next key step is to start interacting with foreign citizens. Another promising goal is for diplomats to begin collaborating with non-state actors and stop being state-centric.

In the article “Diplomacy as a Method of Change Management” (Bjola, 2014) Corneliu Bjola raises the problem of the impact of digital technologies on the work of international organizations. These organizations consider digital technologies as a tool to ensure that public information about its activities is “accurate, widely available and free of suspicion of misinformation or manipulation” and also regard it as a vehicle to achieve organization’s main purpose.

Social media along with digital facilities affected modern diplomacy significantly. The way Twitter platform reshaped the system of international relations is represented in a number of studies. Constance Duncombe in the article “Twitter and transformative diplomacy: social media and Iran–US relations” asserts that Twitter became a platform for dialogue between states and provided another source of international communication. The author seeks to learn, whether social media are effective in developing international trust and can promote the dialogue when traditional diplomacy is hampered by the circumstances and the context of the conflict. The author concludes that nowadays Twitter provides new political possibilities which promote changes. It provides insights into how the states and their leaders recognize each other. Such platform not being a face-to-face communication allows to influence the situation and to achieve positive results while settling a conflict.

The case of the UK and Iran

On 20 July, the year 2019 Iranian officials released a footage of the seized British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz[1]. The events under consideration got the name of the Gulf Crisis, according to the news agencies[2]. It should be marked that the crisis started even before the Iranian detainment of the British-flagged vessel. On 4 July, UK forces seized the Iranian tanker Adrian Darya-1 on suspicion of breaking EU sanctions on Syria[3].

Adrian Darya-1, which was previously called Grace-1, was detained by British maritime forces of Gibraltar. Great Britain suspected the Iranian vessel to sell the oil to Syria in violation of the sanctions imposed on Iran by Western countries. Iranian tanker was released on 15 August, after Tehran had provided proofs that they would not discharge its 2.1m barrels of oil in Syria[4].

Later, in retaliation for the detainment of Iranian tanker, the British-flagged Stena Impero was seized by Iranian officials in the Hormuz strait. The vessel was passing through a narrow strait connecting the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The seizure took place in the international waters. Iran claimed that they had failed to connect with the crewmembers because there was no response to their calls. British officials and the ship owners found no evidence for the allegation[5]. They sent a Royal Navy frigate to the tanker’s aids but Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps had transported Stena Impero to the port of Bandar Abbas earlier than the frigate could reach the scene.

To find a settlement to the conflict the Gulf States proposed holding an international conference, which would set out principles of maritime protection[6]. According to the supporters of the initiative, the conference was to have predicted maritime threats and provided the security in the sea.

On 27 September, Iranian Guard Corps released the British-flagged Stena Impero. It left the port after more than two months in captivity. However, the conflict is not still settled. The analysts claim that the Gulf Crisis is more than a conflict over the violation of maritime rules. The release of the ship removed only one item from the agenda[7]. Western countries, including the USA, try to make Iran comply with the terms and conditions of the nuclear deal. Recent conflicts in the Gulf spurred the tensions in the region. Iranian officialshave announced that Iran will begin enriching uranium using centrifuges at a controversial and heavily fortified nuclear facility[8].

The crisis was commented on not only by news agencies, but also by the official representatives of the parties to the conflict. The study suggests that Twitter represented the most convenient platform for the officials to make their statements, providing immediate reactions.

Twitter analysis

As long as nowadays diplomacy has undergone a number of changes connected with the progress in digital realm, the study refers to a social media platform, which has gained in publicity and popularity among both official leaders and citizens over the recent decade. Analysis of the posts published in Twitter by representatives of the parties to the conflict provides an insight into how both sides treat the issue and how they recognize each other.

The authors examined the tweets from the beginning of the conflict to its final point, that is to say from the period of 4 July when Iranian tanker was seized to 27 September when British-flagged vessel was released by the Iranian Guard Corps. The research is based on the statements made by Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The day when the situation under consideration started and the Iranian tanker was seized by the British Royal Maritime Forces in Gibraltar, i.e. 4 July, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt expressed the pride in the work of United Kingdom Maritime Forces. According to him, the act of Iranian tanker detainment represents an important step towards the restriction of sanctions on Syria. The action is vital in terms of the fight against Asad’s ‘murderous regime’, Jeremy Hunt said. He also shared the speech by Fabian Picardo, chief minister of Gibraltar, who had expressed his concerns over the tensions in the region and thanked the United Kingdom for the support.


The rhetoric of Jeremy Hunt’s next post focuses on the necessity of investing into British national defense. The Secretary of State outlines that British Navy is to be stronger and more powerful amidst the conflict with Iran. According to him, it is a great chance for the UK to ‘show their confidence in the world’.


The same day, 11 July, @Jeremy_Hunt retweeted his article published by The Telegraph (@Telegraph), where he paid attention to investing into the Royal Navy. Jeremy Hunt claims that it is the best way to demonstrate British power overseas and to restore security in the maritime space.


On 13 July, British Secretary of State commented on the phone call he had with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif. Jeremy Hunt named (@Jeremy_Hunt) it a ‘constructive call’. According to him, they agreed on the reason for the detainment. The UK Maritime Forces were concerned about the destination or the oil tanker. They prevented its approaching towards the Syrian coast because of the existing sanctions on Syria. Jeremy Hunt reassured Iranian Foreign Minister and guaranteed an easy release if Iran proved the tanker would not provide Syria with oil.  From his part, Javad Zarif guaranteed that Iran did not tend to escalate the conflict.

Jeremy Hunt and his counterpart also discussed the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, British-Iranian dual citizen who has been detained in Iran since 3 April 2016. The parties agreed to find a solution to the problem of dual nationals’ detainment.




On 15 July, @Jeremy_Nunt had an important meeting with the EU representatives where the parties discussed the nuclear deal the compliance of its terms. The negotiations mostly focused on Iranian participating in the deal. The Secretary expressed the strict position of the UK on the issue: ‘no partial compliance’. He also mentioned that amidst the tensions connected with the seizure of Iranian tanker the powers are not to neglect the JCPOA compliance, which had been worked out by the 5+1 group, i.e. the USA, Russia, PRC, the UK, France and Germany. Here Jeremy Hunt mentioned that not only Europe supported the Plan, but also Russia and China, what imposes responsibilities in Iran.



It should be noticed that deescalating of the issue remains the Secretary’s great concern until the seizure of the British-flagged vessel by Iran on 19 July.  Jeremy Hunt discussed the prospects of Grace-1 release with Fabian Picardo. They agreed that although sanctions are to be respected, the EU has to be open to seeking the solution to the problems in the region.


The day of the retaliated seizure of Stena Impero by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz Jeremy Hunt expressed his extreme concern. The Secretary highlighted the importance of joint actions and said that the international partners are involved in the solution seeking process.  Standing up for the freedom of navigation Jeremy Hunt urged the world community to join forces.


On 20 July, Jeremy Hunt claimed that the behaviour of Iranian officials destabilized the maritime security and outlined that Iranian Grace-1 seizure was a ‘legal detention’. The Secretary warned that Iran had chosen ‘a dangerous path of illegal behaviour’. The rhetoric of @Jeremy_Huntchanged and he placed higher premium on the importance of ‘ensuring the safety’ of British shipping than on seeking to find a solution to ‘Grace-1 issue’.



The same day a number of tweets on the same issue appeared in Jeremy Hunt’s profile. The British official is convinced that the detention of Stena Impero is a ‘clear contravention of international law’. Then, @Jeremy_Hunt recounted his talk with Iranian Foreign Minister who also expressed a disappointment and assured the UK that Iran still sake to resolve the issue. The Secretary demonstrated British tough determination to save the vessel saying that ‘British shipping must & will be protected’.



During more than the whole month there were no tweets by @Jeremy_Hunt on the Gulf Crisis. The only post published by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on 11 September called on the international community to ‘stop hostage-taking by Iran’ in response to the imprisonment of two British-Austrian women.


It is important to notice that there was no reaction by British official (@Jeremy_Hunt) to the release of both Grace-1 and Stena Impero respectively on 15 August and 27 September.

The analysis of the Iranian position showed that the only response to the events of July 4 on Twitter was from the account of the Iranian Foreign Ministry (@IRIMFA_EN). It quotes Foreign Minister of Islamic Republic of Iran Javad Zarif who claimed in his phone conversation with Jeremy Hunt, his British counterpart, that his country would continue to be an oil exporter and provocations, created by other states, would not force Iran to stop. Another aim of the tweet was to urge the UK authorities to put an end to “the illegal confiscation of the Iranian oil tanker”. It is crucial to notice that there had been no reaction from Iranian authorities on Twitter until after this phone conversation occurred 10 days after the incident. Thus, Twitter nowadays is a platform where officials can immediately publish the results of phone conversations or negotiations. In Iran Twitter has been blocked since 2009 that is why tweets of the state’s accounts are in English and they are used as instruments of foreign policy.


On the day when the footage of the seized British tanker was released, i.e. July 20, Javad Zarif (@JZarif) called previous actions of the UK “the piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar”. He stated that Iran’s actions of detaining the British tanker were necessary because international maritime rules had been violated. The official position is that Iran is the primary security guard in the Persian Gulf & the Strait of Hormuz and all the rule breakers will suffer the consequences. So, Twitter serves as a tool for government officials to express their point of view and provide instantaneous reactions to certain breaking news.


Besides discussing the situation in the Strait of Gibraltar, Javad Zarif is quick to make a connection between the incident and the phenomenon of economic terrorism conducted by the United States. Such expressions as “a global menace”, “turning his venom against the UK”, “dragging it into a quagmire”, “thwart such ploys” all convey the Minister’s attitude towards the US and its activities in the international arena. Twitter in a way changes the diplomatic language.

These tweets are merely a part of a trend which is easily seen in the Twitter accounts of Iranian authorities. The trend is about accusing the USA of economic terrorism and intrusion into the affairs of other states at the same time turning the US’s allies against their rivals. Javad Zarif believes that this fact is obvious and adds that the sanctions imposed on Iran by Western countries cannot be called sanctions. He believes that sanctions should be imposed in order “to enforce laws” whereas these particular ones violate them.




The next day, July 21, Javad Zarif continues with his anti-US rhetoric, this time giving a link to a Guardian article where the writer claims that the UK “stumbled into an American trap”, which is exactly the opinion the Foreign Minister expressed the previous day.


Interestingly, in the Twitter era a state official can just share a link to some article and the perspective, provided in that article, will be regarded by their followers as the state’s official position.


The research conducted by the authors provided an insight into how the countries and their officials treated the conflict under consideration and how the parties recognized their role, themselves and each other amid the crisis. Content analysis of Twitter profiles of the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (@Jeremy_Hunt) and his Iranian counterpart (@JZarif) facilitated the revealing of prominent traits of the foreign policies carried out by both states.

 Great Britain was inclined to focus on its internal affairs. The main rhetoric was squared with the security of the country. As the most prominent representative of the Secrecy for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt considered the British vessels defence in the maritime space to be the highest priority of the state. He placed a high premium on the development of British Navy: “We must boost defence spending on the tools of hard power such as Royal Navy[9]”; “Latest incident with Iranian boats in the Gulf shows exactly why we must invest more in defence”[10].

The Secretary expressed his pride in Royal Maritime Forces when the Iranian tanker was seized: “Congratulations to Gibraltar and @RoyalMarines for this bold move to enforce Syria sanctions”[11]. The interpretation of the rhetoric could be related with the publicity of Twitter among the citizens of Great Britain who follow the officials and their statements in social media.

However, the focus on international affairs is also there. Jeremy Hunt commented on the important phone calls with his counterpart Javad Zarif expressing his hopes on the conflict settlement.

Iran, in turn, use Twitter as an instrument of foreign policy, in fact, Twitter has been blocked for ordinary people in the country since 2009. Officials don’t use it in order to appeal to citizens across Iran, they use this social network for communication with other governments’ authorities, especially with the USA’s authorities. Their rhetoric, which is slightly informal, often focuses on leveling accusations or in some cases consists of responds to allegations.

Another observation made by the authors is connected with the number of tweets reporting on the detained vessels by both countries. When it comes to the number of tweets by @Jeremy_Hunt, there are more posts devoted to the seizure of Iranian tanker by Great Britain than those on British flagged ship detainment in the Hormuz. It means that the parties to the conflict are liable to defend their position and stand for the decisions taken during the course of the conflict. Thus, Twitter Diplomacy became an efficient tool to maintain the global standing of a country (Manor I, Pamment J., 2019).

Also official Twitter accounts of government bodies, as can be seen from all of the tweets attached, also seek to realize Twitter’s full potential by using hashtags and mentioning accounts of politicians and government figures from other countries. Consequently, it massively helps them to attract the public’s attention to one situation or the other.


  1. Bjola C. (2014) Diplomacy as a Method of Change Management // University of Oxford
  2. Bjola C., Holmes M. (2015). Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice
  3. Bull H. (1997) The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics // Houndmills. 2nd ed., UK: Macmillan. 348 P.
  4. Duncombe C. (2017) Twitter and transformative diplomacy: social media and Iran–US relations // International Affairs. Vol. 93, №3, P. 545–562.
  5. Hocking B., Melissen J. (2015) Diplomacy in the Digital Age
  6. Manor I, Pamment J. (2019) Towards prestige mobility? Diplomatic prestige and digital diplomacy // Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Vol. 32, №2, P. 93 – 131.
  7. Manor I. (2016) Are We There Yet: Have MFAs Realized the Potential of Digital Diplomacy? // Brill Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

[1]The Guardian. Iran releases footage of seized British-flagged oil tanker – video, 2019. URL:

[2]BBC News. Stena Impero: Seized British tanker leaves Iran's waters. 2019. URL:

[3]BBC News. Stena Impero: Seized British tanker leaves Iran's waters. 2019. URL:

[4] The Guardian. Iranian tanker seized by Gibraltar 'photographed off Syria', 2019. URL:

[5] BBC News. Stena Impero: Seized British tanker leaves Iran's waters. 2019. URL:

[6] The Guardian. Navy to guard UK ships in strait of Hormuz, MoD says, 2019. URL:

[7] BBC News. Stena Impero: Seized British tanker leaves Iran's waters. 2019. URL:

[8] Iran Takes Another Step To Enrich Uranium, In Another Blow To Nuclear Deal. 2019. URL: