Iran’s Electronic Resistance (06/04)

The fundamentalists’ landslide victory in Iran’s recent “free” elections disheartened Western observers. The CIA declared that the lopsided outcome points to a new era of repression by the country’s clerical regime. In blocking fair elections, clerical hard-liners drove dissent online, lighting up thousands of alternate channels of communication.

In Iran, the Internet is becoming the most successful way to work around oppression. It gives ordinary people access to real news and information. They can express their opinions freely and communicate with Iranians around the world.

Indeed, the more the government cracks down, the more Websites dedicated to changing the system spring up. Dozens of them currently provide news and views in the Farsi language.

Perhaps reformist candidates never had a chance in a country where power rests not with elected officials, but with a theocratic dictator – Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. But even he can’t stop the light-fingered digital guerillas hiding within the Internet’s electronic jungle. About 30 major political Websites are accessible in Iran, most of them pro-reform.

Iran’s hard-line clerics publicly “disqualified” more than 2500 reform candidates for Parliament, but couldn’t shut down the 20,000 Iranian “blog” sites. Many are overtly political and widely read.

There are up to four million Internet users in Iran today, nearly double the numbers of just four years ago. More importantly, two-thirds of Iran’s 66 million inhabitants are under 30, and many are both politically active and computer literate. Internet cafes are common in Iranian cities; Tehran alone accounts for more than 1500.

The government tries to control this dangerous new medium, but can’t. Like every emerging society, Iran’s now relies on the Internet for a daily tide of personal and business communications – from emails and chat rooms to libraries, blogs, and news searches.

The regime claims its policies are aimed solely at “pornographic” sites. But it’s well known that their Internet controls also target sites that cover politics or human rights.

The problem for the government – and all authoritarian regimes – is that the Internet is global. It does little good to crack down on in-country sites, since the great wave of content washes over borders.

Moreover, ingenious Web users delight in finding clever ways around electronic barriers. In trying to squelch the thousands of sites deemed “immoral,” regulators face a hopeless task.

In August 2003, the US Office of Global Internet Freedom did its bit to make that job more difficult by agreeing to sponsor a Web “proxy” service for Iranian users, created by a privacy software company called Anonymizer, Inc. The service, with instructions in Farsi, allows Iranians to visit Websites – including the ones “banned” by their government – without leaving tracks.

Iranian reformers also have other technological weapons. For instance, they use mobile phones, particularly text messaging services, to spread their message and organize resistance under the noses of old-fashioned print censors. Only in the “offline” world can the hardliners restrict citizens from forming social organizations. They fear – quite rightly – that organizations outside their control will undermine their power.

Admittedly, the number of Iranians taking part in online resistance is small at this point, and the networks can be ephemeral. But the trend couldn’t be clearer. The Internet is giving Iranians, especially the better educated, a new way to express themselves and exchange information and ideas with their peers. The country is opening, and so far even rigged elections and repressive clerics have been unable to stop it.

An index of Iran news and information sources is available at , including Babak Rahimi’s paper on the Internet’s impact, “Cyberdissent: The Internet Revolutionary in Iran.” Iran Filter, a collective news site, provides useful, up-to-date articles at . Another option is . The Worker-Communist Party of Iran, an anti-fundamentalist/pro-secular group, offers activist material in six languages; for English, . The Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a broad coalition calling itself a parliament in exile, provides other perspectives at .