The newly elected administration of Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, has embraced Facebook and Twitter in a public challenge to online censorship as authorities begin to debate whether a ban on the social networking websites should be lifted.
An increasing number of Rouhani's cabinet members – including the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh – have become active online since Rouhani was sworn in last month, even though access to most of the major social networks including Facebook remains blocked across the country.
The move, which heralds a new era in the Iranian government's engagement with its citizens, has raised hopes of an easing of internet-related regulations.
Rouhani has maintained a presence on social media since the election campaign, posting on Twitter last week a Rosh Hashanah blessing for the Jewish new year. He has made public his opposition to internet censorship, describing it as futile, but does not have authority to rescind it alone.
On Monday Iran's judiciary spokesman, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, was asked by reporters in Tehran whether the filtering of Facebook content would be lifted in the light of ministers' membership of the site. He said it could only be lifted if the state committee charged with determining offensive content ruled that it was no longer offensive, the conservative website Khabaronline reported.
Marzieh Afkhami, spokeswoman for Iran's foreign ministry, said in a Facebook status update that Zarif's online activities had encouraged her to join the site. Zarif's first day on Twitter grabbed headlines last week when he said his country did not deny the Holocaust.
Responding to a tweet by Christine Pelosi, the daughter of the US politician Nancy Pelosi, who had told the Iranian minister that the Jewish new year "would have been sweeter" if Iran ended its Holocaust denial, Zarif posted: "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year." Zarif was referring to the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The US-educated foreign minister has more than 15,000 followers on Twitter and more than 160,000 fans on Facebook, posting in English in the former and Persian in the latter. Zarif stirred a debate on Facebook when asking his fans about the situation in Syria, often receiving messages contrary to his.
Many users have joked with Zarif and other ministers about the kind of anti-filtering software or VPN account they use to access Facebook and Twitter.
Iran's internet big brother, the supreme council on cyberspace, was set up last year at the request of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to police the activities of Iranians online. A number of cabinet ministers sit on the council and Rouhani chairs it but they do not necessarily have the final say as it also includes members of other institutions including parliament and the elite Revolutionary Guards.
Last week an official told Iran's semi-official Fars news agency that the committee charged with determining offensive content, which works under the council, would study and assess the ministers' Facebook pages. Elham Aminzadeh, the president's legal adviser, also signalled that the government would determine whether membership of social networks was banned for ministers and government representatives.
Since Rouhani's victory, users in Iran have reported an increase in internet connection speeds. Access to VPN accounts has also been restored. Iranians who could not access Skype because the internet was too slow before the election now say that it works.