About the authors: Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official, is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bryan E. Leib is the executive director of the Iranian Americans for Liberty and a former GOP congressional candidate.
Left-wing influencers, activist groups and corporate executives are up in arms over Elon Musk’s announcement that Twitter has lifted its ban on former President Donald Trump. Musk argues he’s removing political bias and censorship from the platform while liberals decry the potential for Trump to spread disinformation or even incite violence. To defuse that criticism, there’s an obvious way for Musk to prove both he’s serious about freedom of expression and opposes hate speech: Ban Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader and censor-in-chief, from Twitter once and for all.
“The Western powers are a mafia… At the top of this mafia stand the prominent Zionist merchants, and the politicians obey them,” Khamenei tweeted this summer.
“Israel isn’t a country; it’s a #TerroristCamp against Palestinians & other Muslim nations,” he tweeted last year. “Fighting this despotic regime is fighting against oppression & terrorism. And this is everyone’s responsibility.”
Outraged that a U.S. company would give a platform to the head of a designated state sponsor of terrorism to spread virulent antisemitism and incite violence, Iranian Americans asked Twitter to remove Khamenei’s account. But the company’s leaders refused—and their corporate sponsors said nothing.
After the United States imposed financial sanctions on Khamenei, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) called for a criminal investigation of Twitter for “blatant and willful violation” of U.S. sanctions, which prohibit companies from providing services to sanctioned entities. Yet Twitter kept Khamenei’s account active. And the corporate sponsors said nothing. World leaders get a special pass, Twitter has said. Its old leadership saw Khamenei’s threats as just “foreign policy saber-rattling.”
Only since Elon Musk took control of the company have activists and corporate sponsors grown concerned about who gets to say what. Musk can shame his critics and hold true to his censorship-free principles by taking the very action his woke predecessors never did: shutting down Khamenei’s account.
But doesn’t a ban on anyone’s account—even the Supreme Leader’s—contradict Musk’s position that he is removing political bias and censorship? No—restoring Trump while banning Khamenei is quite in line with the basic principle of promoting free expression of ideas.
“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted when his Twitter takeover was finalized. But the blue Twitter bird is anything but free inside Iran. Khamenei tweets, but the Iranian people can’t. With social media blocks, satellite jamming, and Internet shut-downs, the Islamic Republic’s censorship program is among the most repressive in the world.
Musk already knows that. He’s moved quickly to offer his own Starlink satellite service to the Iranian people as they revolt against their oppressors. Without a doubt, Musk would be elevated to hero status inside Iran if he shut down Khamenei’s account—with demand for Starlink rising even more.
A Twitter survey of more than 150,000 users last month found 78% support for removing Khamenei—the same arbitrary methodology Musk used to justify Trump’s return. An online petition has nearly 100,000 signatures. In May, leading Trump supporters in Congress—led by House Foreign Affairs member Rep. Claudia Tenney with support from House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik and Republican Study Committee Chair Rep. Jim Banks—sent Musk a letter urging him to ban Khamenei. That’s not surprising; it was Trump who issued the executive order imposing sanctions on the Office of the Supreme Leader. Musk shouldn’t be worried about blowback from free-speech defenders or Trump advocates—quite the opposite.
In case Musk needs any further justification, the legal one previously raised by Sen. Cruz is most obvious. Under Trump’s sanctions, any company may be violating U.S. sanctions if it provides goods or services to Khamenei, his office, or his business empire. A Justice Department with a desire to hurt Musk could open an investigation at any moment. If Musk makes a move now, he can blame the previous management if the Feds ever come knocking.
From every perspective—values, PR, marketing, legal compliance, politics, global leadership—there’s only upside for Musk in shutting down Khamenei’s Twitter account and all related Twitter tentacles of his murderous regime. There are millions of censored Iranians praying Musk will stand with them—and millions of Americans who won’t know what to say if he does.
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