Despite all of the talk that the Web fueled revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it remains clear that social media, or even increased Internet access, does not necessarily make revolution more likely. Even so, Iran would seem primed for an upheaval of the Islamic theocracy that has ruled the country since 1979. After all, Iran has one of the youngest, most educated and most wired populations in the Middle East. Some 70 percent of the country is under the age of 30, and the overwhelming majority of Iranians are literate. In fact, within the last several years, women have overtaken men in Iranian universities. Meanwhile, Iran’s Internet penetration rate—the percentage of the population that is online—hovers around 35 percent, the highest percentage in the Middle East behind Israel. It made sense that the June 2009 uprising in Iran was thought to have been helped along by postings on Twitter, before it became more apparent that it wasn’t significantly so.
The massive street protests in that uprising, which came in the wake of a disputed presidential election, were brought down with swift and brutal violence by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij, Iran’s vice police force. And besides such aggressive tactics offline, Iran is pursuing more and more sophisticated strategies online as well.
Two weeks ago, Ali Aghamohammadi, the Ahmadinejad Administration’s head of economic affairs, was quoted in IRNA, a state-run news agency, that Iran was working on a “halal Internet.”
“Iran will soon create an Internet that conforms to Islamic principles, to improve its communication and trade links with the world,” he said, explaining that the new network would operate in parallel to the regular Internet and would possibly eventually replace the open Internet in Muslim countries in the region. “We can describe it as a genuinely ‘halal’ network aimed at Muslims on a ethical and moral level,” he added.
It remains unclear exactly what a “halal Internet” would entail. Presumably, by definition, it would exclude the “haram Internet,” (the Muslim equivalent of un-kosher)–so no pornography, for example. Likely, it would also feature the writings of revered Iranian Islamic leaders (the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, would be an obvious choice), as well as current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and other clerics who preach the gospel of the velayat-e faqih, the principle of the “rule of the [Islamic] jurisprudent” that has governed Iran for three decades. But beyond religous scholarship, a halal Internet probably would also feature Iran’s answer to Al Jazeera and the BBC–Press TV, which already has an English-language website.
It would be unlikely, but not technically impossible, for Iran to step up its censorship and filtering regime to create this “halal Internet.” After all, most Cubans, for example, are priced out of the actual Internet and steered towards the Cuban equivalent, which is restricted to an internal e-mail network, and a handful of pro-government sites. In a similar vein, the Chinese Internet is limited largely only to websites that the government doesn’t view as threatening.
This isn’t the first time that the Islamic Republic has tried to co-opt the Internet for its own purposes. In fact, Iran has a 10-year history of pursuing aggressive tactics online.
As early as 2000, Iran tried to fool Iranians by creating the website Montazery.com, which was an attempt to divert traffic from Montazeri.com, the true website of an Iranian dissident ayatollah under house arrest who had written a scathing memoir against Khomeini and the Islamic Republic.
Over the next several years, Iran pursued a campaign of sophisticated filtering and censorship online, while also aggressively intimidating, arresting, and forcing into exile a number of young bloggers. By mid-decade, Iran was actively encouraging pro-regime bloggers, and said in 2008 that it would unleash an “army” of 10,000 bloggers from its own Revolutionary Guard.
In the months after the so-called “Twitter Revolution,” the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei joined the micro-blogging service (@khamenei_ir), sending out 140 characters of propaganda—in English and Persian—at a time.
More recently, in fact, just before the Persian New Year, on March 20, 2011, a pro-regime blogger, Omid Hosseini, was proclaimed to be the winner of a government-sponsored blogging contest–only open to blogs that were not filtered in-country (meaning they are pro-regime), of course.
But there’s likely a lot more to come out of the Iranian online world, particularly now that Iran has declared that it believes the United States and Israel were behind the creation of the infamous Stuxnet worm that likely set back Iran’s nuclear program. (The New York Times had arrived at a similar conclusion months earlier.)
In an interview published in IRNA on April 16, Gholam Reza Jalali, the commander of the Iranian civil defense organization, was quoted as saying that Iran was creating the “1390 Program”—1390 being the current year in the Persian calendar—which would add six cyberdefense master’s degree programs and one doctoral program across various Iranian universities.
“The final solution to problems of [cyberdefense and the] formation of Jihad, is to achieve economic self-sufficiency in the production of basic software such as operating systems and software,” he said.
Cyrus Farivar (@cfarivar) is the author of The Internet of Elsewhere (Rutgers University Press, 2011), a book about the history and effects of the Internet in Senegal, South Korea, Estonia, and Iran.