The Department of Foreign Affairs is bringing together seasoned election observers, analysts and Farsi speakers to monitor Friday’s elections in Iran — only none of them will come anywhere near the polls ostensibly deciding the country’s next president.
Instead, many of them will gather at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, where an elections monitoring centre will go live starting Friday, the day Iranians go to the polls to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
According to government officials — allowed to speak to CBC on condition of not being identified — the centre will "broadcast" until June 21, the day a runoff vote might be held should all of the six remaining candidates fail to win 50 per cent of the vote on the first ballot.
The live broadcast will be accessible on Google hangout, Twitter and Facebook, largely in Farsi. It will include a crowd-sourced elections violations map based at least partly on citizen reporting from inside Iran itself. Media monitoring, on-the-spot analysis by Farsi speakers and expert election monitors from the National Democratic Institute will round out the information streamed online for Iranians to see.
The idea, said the officials, is to capitalize on a rare and limited window that Iran’s presidential elections open every four years for a wider political discussion.
It appears rooted in the belief that dissenters may still regain their voice, despite a damaging crackdown that followed the electrifying 2009 campaign.
Back then, opposition political rallies, driven by social media and the internet, turned into deadly protests when Ahmadinejad was announced the winner and regime forces used violence to shut the opposition down. Within weeks, the voices of optimism had been snuffed out, many activists imprisoned or exiled, and opposition leaders under house arrest where they remain to this day.
"When Iranians decide they want to take the initiative and have a more open discussion inside the country, they know there are people listening to them," said one of the officials.
The official added the effort is not an attempt to encourage regime change — though the Canadian government has repeatedly made clear such a change would be welcome.
But he did say that that the monitoring will provide a side benefit to the government: gathering valuable information it otherwise would have a hard time getting now that Canada’s embassy in Tehran is closed.
It’s a "powerful source of information on what Iranians themselves think, and that can only influence advice we send to the political level."
The monitoring initiative is a more ambitious part of the government’s foray into digital diplomacy in Iran, initially launched last month at the Munk School — and less than a year after Canada closed its embassy citing security concerns.
The so-called Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran started with two days of panels and debates streamed online. It is aimed at enabling Iranians "to have the very conversations the regime is trying to prevent with its regressive actions and policies," said a source close to Foreign Minister John Baird.
The strategy includes help from the University of Toronto, and ASL19, an online activist group, to ensure Iranians can actually access the Canadian-generated content — and to upload their own.
Leading up to the elections, the Iranian government has choked off the internet, slowing down speeds and at one point disabling virtual private networks that enable Iranians to protect their identities online.