International arms control has been at the forefront of global narratives in light of the recent negotiations in Vienna regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has invested heavily in controlling digital discourse in both Farsi and English, but Russia has led narrative control in both post count and engagement count. China has played a peripheral role, supporting the JCPOA and criticizing the US sanctions regime. US state-funded media promoted American efforts to revive the JCPOA and drew attention to the Iranian leadership’s favorable impression of negotiations.
Russia has echoed Iranian media’s assertion that the US reneged on its promise to uphold the JCPOA and therefore shoulders the blame for Iranian noncompliance. In this regard, Sputnik Iran and RT in Russian have been most prolific in drawing attention to Iranian demands and aligning Russian and Iranian messaging. This fits into a larger Russian geopolitical goals, supported both by Kremlin-owned and Kremlin-aligned media, to portray the US as an untrustworthy diplomatic leader. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the US for “abandon[ing] the Open Skies Treaty’’ and undermining international security. TASS, the state newswire, accused the US of intentionally slowing its chemical weapons disarmament, another blow to international arms control. Izvestia, a newspaper owned by Putin ally Yuri Kovalchuk, proposed that Russia take a lead in arms control agreements with Europe and exclude the US from any potential talks. Russian narratives align with the state’s intent to displace the US as a diplomatic leader and minimize American influence in negotiations.
Russia has deployed these narratives in English, Russian, and Farsi for a combined total of 1,614 posts and 116k engagements between January and May 2021. Each language segment comprises 30% of Russian state content on arms control and the JCPOA, but the substance of the posts varies by language. In English-language posts, Russia expressed a positive sentiment of +0.24, on a scale from -1.00 to +1.00, toward US intentions to lift sanctions, but English-speaking audiences were not convinced and generated only 11k engagements. The same analysis of commenters’ sentiment yielded a score of -0.05. Russian-language posts referenced various arms control regimes. Izvestia criticized the US for feigning diplomacy with Russia while maintaining antagonistic sanctions. Russian-language content garnered 50k engagements. Farsi content had an exceedingly positive sentiment of +0.66 and suggested the US will return to the JCPOA thanks to Russian diplomacy. Farsi content generated just under 40k engagements, but audiences remained cautious and responded with a neutral sentiment of +0.01 to Russian messaging. Russia tailored narratives to target important audience bases, but missed the mark in terms of inducing the desired response.
Iranian narratives were more uniform. PressTV, a state-owned international newspaper, completely blames the US for the lack of compliance with the JCPOA and in an interview with Politico, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asserted that the US must make amends first. Throughout the Vienna negotiations, Iranian media has maintained cautious optimism on the outcome of talks but suggested Israel still holds significant influence over the US return to the JCPOA. Iran has impacted discussions on JCPOA with nearly 3,000 posts in 2021 and over 159,000 engagements out of an overall total of 6,450 posts and 2.6M engagements across all actors. The remarkably positive portrayal of the JCPOA and the Vienna talks resonated with Iran’s primarily Farsi-speaking audience. Iran has sought to influence English-language audiences with similarly positive content measuring +0.21 in sentiment, but this segment responded neutrally with -0.01.
Despite China’s role as one of the major delegations at the Vienna talks, Chinese media has stayed in the periphery and dedicated few resources to messaging on the JCPOA and arms control. China has published only 130 posts on these topics from January to May 2021 and garnered fewer than 600 engagements. Regardless of the paltry post frequency and impact, Chinese messaging is firmly aligned with Iran. China has pushed for universal compliance with the JCPOA and for the US to lift sanctions against Iran before reviving the agreement. China published 80% of this content in English, but these posts received little engagement. Audiences were neutral in response to China’s limited messaging.
US content on arms control the JCPOA has been dominated by state-funded but editorially independent outlets Radio Farda and VOA Persian. Though US post count only amounts to 434 posts, they have garnered over 800,000 engagements, far exceeding Russian, Iranian, and Chinese engagements combined. Radio Farda quoted both Russian and Iranian officials who praised the progress made in Vienna and characterized the nuclear talks as nearly successful. US content also emphasized the importance of mutual agreement between Iran and the United States to revive the JCPOA. The US expressed a strongly positive sentiment of +0.44 in its coverage, but audiences only responded with a neutral sentiment of +0.01.
US adversaries were firmly aligned in their messaging on the JCPOA, rallying support for Iranian interests, and criticizing US sanctions. The context of the Vienna talks made this messaging alignment easy to implement, with each party identifying the US as the aggressor due to its initial withdrawal in 2018. China has played the smallest role, potentially because it does not perceive the JCPOA as a critical topic at which to delegate media resources. Iranian content demonstrated the most resonant narratives on the JCPOA, though this is due in part to its near singular focus on Farsi-language audiences. US state-funded media framed the JCPOA negotiations in Vienna positively, and had an unparalleled impact in raw engagements with Farsi-speaking audiences. Russia showed an intent to expand its messaging on arms control and promote Russian leadership in negotiating future agreements. Russia’s positive portrayal of such diplomacy can be expected, but the means by which it advertises its leadership warrants attention.