Twitter Must De-Platform Iran’s Supreme Leader

March 19, 2021

By David Andrew Weinberg

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran and an active presence on various social media platforms in multiple languages.  And although he uses these accounts to spread hatred, violence, and dangerous disinformation – let alone his calls to destroy the State of Israel – these platforms allow him to keep doing so in seeming violation of their own policies.

This is in purported deference to his status as a political figure. But with more than a million followers across his accounts on Twitter alone, and a track record on Twitter that exceeds even the posts that got former President Trump banned from several social media platforms for life, it’s hard to understand why Twitter and others didn’t take action against Khamenei long ago.

Just yesterday, Twitter attempted to put some window dressing around this problem, perhaps in anticipation of next week’s House hearing where CEO Jack Dorsey and other tech leaders are expected to be grilled on this and other issues. Twitter issued a statement saying they are “reviewing our approach to world leaders” and would be soliciting input from the public on whether or not “they believe world leaders should be subject to the same rules as others on Twitter. And should a world leader violate a rule, what type of enforcement action is appropriate.”

For Jack Dorsey, who has previously dismissed Khamenei’s incitement as “saber rattling,” this case shouldn’t be hard: Twitter should enforce its terms of service for all users, whether private citizen, elected official or unelected tyrant. Propagating hate, glorifying terrorism and encouraging Holocaust denial should get you kicked off Twitter permanently.

The issue made headlines in January in particular, when the Persian-language Twitter account attributed to Khamenei’s personal office (@khamenei_site) posted a potentially dangerous graphic threatening “revenge” while appearing to depict former President Trump under the shadow of a looming airstrike.  That post was then retweeted by the Persian-language account attributed to Khamenei personally (@khamenei_fa).  Following public outcry, Twitter finally suspended the former account, but not the latter.

Reportedly, Twitter claimed the account it had suspended was penalized merely because it had violated the company’s policy against the creation of fake accounts, but this justification is puzzling for several reasons.  For example, it is unclear why @khamenei_site had eluded suspension on that basis for half a year until that point.  Or why, as the Washington Post notes, “Khamenei’s main English-language account had followed it and his Farsi-language account had retweeted it.”  Or, for that matter, why accounts that had retweeted its dangerous graphic should be permitted to avoid any negative consequences over having promoted incitement to violence.

ADL immediately wrote to Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, urging Twitter to finally to deplatform all accounts linked to Khamenei without delay for repeated violations of Twitter’s rules that prohibit incitement to hatred and violence. 

ADL’s letter specifically identified what are widely believed to be Khamenei’s Persian-language personal account (@khamenei_fa), his English-language personal account (@khamenei_ir), the English-language account for his personal office (@khamenei_tv), and his personal accounts in Spanish (@es_khamenei), Russian (@khameneiru), and Arabic (@ar_khamenei), as well as “other problematic accounts in additional languages that may also belong to Khamenei”. 

For example, @khamenei_fa follows only 15 other Twitter handles, including these three in Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, plus similar ones that appear authoritative in French (@khamenei_fra), German (@de_khamenei), Italian (@it_khamenei), Turkish (@tr_khamenei_ir), Hindi (@in_khamenei), and Urdu (@ur_khamenei).  Also, his Arabic account follows what seems to be an Arabic-language handle for his office (@site_khamenei).

These accounts frequently violate Twitter’s fundamental stated rules regarding dehumanizing hate, violence, and disinformation and yet are allowed to keep operating with relative impunity.

First, Twitter’s Glorification of Violence policy states “you can’t glorify, celebrate, praise or condone violent crimes, violent events where people were targeted because of their membership in a protected group, or the perpetrators of such acts,” and that repeat violations will result in suspension.  Yet in January alone, the English-language account attributed to Khamenei, @khamenei_ir, did this repeatedly – to nearly 900,000 followers – often regarding notorious perpetrators of terrorism and antisemitism. For example, that account routinely glorifies the late Qassem Soleimani, under whose decades of leadership Iran’s IRGC Quds Force armed a panoply of antisemitic terrorist or violent extremist groups which intentionally murder civilians.

On January 8th, @khamenei_ir tweeted “I thank God & the dear people of our country for their epic movement in commemorating the anniversary of the martyrdoms of dear #Soleimani & #AbuMahdi. I also sincerely thank the #Iraqi brothers & sisters for their massive, stunning turnout in honoring these martyrs.”  That day @khamenei_ir also retweeted a video glorifying “Martyr Soleimani” for youthful energy. 

Likewise, on January 14th the account posted a photograph of Khamenei praying with a photo of Soleimani featured prominently alongside him.  And on January 31st, it announced he was visiting “the tombs of the martyrs,” including with a photograph showing a poster of Soleimani behind him. 

Going farther back, this account has repeatedly violated Twitter’s stated Glorification of Violence policy in other blatant ways as well, such as repeatedly glorifying the antisemitic terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  In 2012, it tweeted “Well done to #Hamas and Islamic Jihad! #Palestine @AlqassamBrigade,” after they launched over a thousand missiles against , many of which the UN found were fired intentionally at Israeli civilian targets.  In 2014, it proclaimed that the lesson of the latest war in Gaza was that “#Jihad& #Hamas should increase their purpose& efforts,” which in large part entailed indiscriminate rocket attacks targeting Israelis.

This account attributed to Khamenei also repeatedly celebrates the terrorist group Hezbollah, even calling it “a shining sun” and  “#an honor for the world of Islam.”

It has specifically glorified as martyrs Imad Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s late chiefs of terrorist operations, and tweeted as recently as March 3rd promoting the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah and "the #Resistance". 

In 2019, Twitter removed several accounts attributed to Hamas or Hezbollah, insisting “there is no place on Twitter for illegal terrorist organizations and violent extremist groups.” Yet the platform enforces this policy inconsistently and gives wide latitude for public office holders who arm these groups and use Twitter to glorify them and justify their atrocities.

Second, Twitter maintains a Hateful Conduct policy, which states that “we take action against behavior that targets individuals or an entire protected category with hateful conduct,” to include either “slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone” or “the dehumanization of a group of people based on their religion… national origin, race, or ethnicity.” Yet his apparent account @khamenei_ir does these things repeatedly as well. 

For example, it has proclaimed that “Ppl who immigrated to Occupied #Palestine in the name of Jews are greedy ppl& sometimes wicked & killer who are gathered fr [sic] across the world.” On February 17th, it retweeted a video proclaiming that “day after day there is [sic] schemes and conspiracies that are hatched… by the Zionists” against Iran.  More broadly, the account propagates an array of historic stereotypes about the Jewish people, even if they are sometimes ostensibly couched with regard to “Zionists” or “Israelis,” for example calling them “filthy,” “bloody,” “conspiring,” “nationless,” “plutocrats,” who are enemies of humanity,” “control” a “news empire” and “politicians,” and who take pride in genocide and murdering children.

It also amplifies Khamenei’s calls to destroy Israel, calling it a “beastly & pagan” “chained dog” as well as “a malignant cancerous tumor… that has to be removed and eradicated.”

Third, Twitter reportedly claims that it treats Holocaust denial as violation of its Hateful Conduct policy.  However, within weeks of this development in October, @khamenei_ir continued urging people to “raise doubts about the Holocaust” without any apparent reaction by Twitter.  Other tweets still posted to this account call the Holocaust “uncertain” and “questionable,” as well as celebrating Roger Garaudy for his “doubts about the number of #Holocaust victims”.

And these posts are just from the English-language personal account that is widely attributed to him.  The Persian-language account, for example, has over 300,000 followers, and all of the accounts identified here appear to run afoul of numerous stated policies by Twitter with relative impunity.

Of course, it is understandable that removing a national leader from social media is a last resort and should be determined according to strict standards.  It should only be invoked in rare cases when an official’s repeated conduct on the platform poses an imminent threat to public safety and violates the platform’s stated policies or terms of service.

That is why ADL called for President Trump’s removal from social media platforms after the insurrection on January 6th.  That is also why ADL calls on social media platforms to urgently take the overdue step of deplatforming Khamenei.  The evidence for doing so is overwhelming.

David Andrew Weinberg is ADL’s Washington Director for International Affairs.