REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Internet users trying to access a new U.S. "virtual embassy"' from Iran on Wednesday said they were redirected to a Web page offering links to Iranian news, cultural and religious sites.
Others received a message in Persian saying: "In accordance with computer crime laws, access to this website is not possible."
The United States launched the site on Tuesday, saying it wanted to promote understanding between the two countries.
"Because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, we have missed some important opportunities for dialogue with you, the citizens of Iran," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a welcome message posted on the site. "But today, we can use new technologies to bridge that gap and promote greater understanding between our two countries, and the peoples of each country, which is why we established this virtual embassy."
The Web-based embassy, which has versions in English and Persian, provides information about U.S. government policy, immigration and visa issues, and education programs, among other matters. There are also links to President Obama's address to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year in March and interviews Clinton has done with Persian-language BBC and Voice of America programs.
"Outreach efforts like these are essential to bringing information and alternative viewpoints to the Iranian people," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on the agency's blog. "This virtual embassy is just the first of many ways in which we will seek to challenge the Iranian regime's efforts to place an electronic curtain of surveillance, satellite jamming and online filtering around its people, and I look forward to enhancing our communication efforts directly to the Iranian people."
Earlier this year, the State Department launched a Persian-language Twitter account and Facebook page.
The already strained relations between Iran and the United States have deteriorated sharply in recent weeks over Iran's disputed nuclear program. The countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1980 after Islamic militants and students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran the previous year, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Senior Iranian lawmakers denounced the Web-based embassy Wednesday as an attempt to mislead the country's people into believing the U.S. wants to communicate with them.
"The opening of the virtual embassy by the U.S. is a new deception by the Great Satan," Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, was quoted as saying in Iranian news reports.
Some in Iran expressed surprise that the "virtual embassy" was not blocked sooner, but noted that Tuesday was a major religious holiday.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: A screen shot of the U.S. "virtual embassy" in Iran. Credit: iran.usembassy.gov