Politics & Policy

Iran Online

The mullahs can't keep their people from the world.

On Feb. 20, Iranians went to the polls and cast their ballots in the country’s parliamentary elections. In a remarkable display of democratic solidarity, they voted overwhelmingly in support of hard-line fundamentalist candidates.

At least, that’s the “official” report. Unfortunately, the government story bears little resemblance to the real and distressing reality.

Just two days before the elections, the Iranian Shiite mullahs forcibly closed two reformist newspapers. Clerics also sealed off the campaign office of the main reformist party and shut down its website.

One month earlier, the government had “disqualified” more than 2,500 reformist candidates, and in protest to that move, another 1,179 reform candidates willfully dropped out of the race.

Westerners watching these developments unfold cannot help but question whether these elections are a great setback for a country that seemed to be moving in a reformist direction. But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud over Iran.

Iranians know the mullahs will never truly allow any substantive democratic reform. So reformists are using other means to spread the democratic message–namely, the Internet.

The mullahs won a majority of seats in the rigged election, but they are fighting a losing battle to keep dissident websites in check. Myriad Farsi-language websites have sprung up with news and opinions that question the clerical government of Iran.

For every site the government shuts down, ten more emerge in their place. Emrooz manages to operate despite having their editors arrested and jailed.

There are now between 20 and 30 major political websites active in Iran, most of them being pro-reformist. There are also roughly 20,000 Iranian blog sites and between 50 and 60 have become widely read for their reformist political content. Much to the chagrin of the government, these types of politically oriented sites are growing.

Official estimates place the number of Internet users in Iran anywhere from 2.5 million to 4 million. To satisfy the web surfers, Tehran alone has approximately 1,500 Internet cafes.

This rise of the Internet as a political force is breathtaking in speed, and absolutely unprecedented in human history.

To put it into perspective, consider that the Internet is less than 10 years old, yet roughly 10 percent of the world’s population has already experienced it. The telephone, on the other hand, has existed almost 125 years, but only made its way to half the world’s people just a few years ago. The Internet’s diffusion is literally the fastest spread of technology in recorded human history.

In Iran, this online trend is further accelerated because two-thirds of Iran’s population of 66 million is below the age of 30. And in addition to being politically active, they are also computer literate.

Popular sites in Iran include Gooya, a directory of links that includes news and links to Persian-language news sites, chat rooms, music and shopping pages.

The Iranian Students News Agency, created four years ago as an alternative to state-run news, has also garnered a large following.

These Internet chat rooms, libraries, blog sites, link directories, and news-gathering organizations are an integral part of the civil society today in Iran. Admittedly, the associations on the Internet are more nebulously constructed and short-lived. However, they still fulfill the basic human and democratic need: free speech.

The U.S. government has recognized this trend and is playing its part to help. In August 2003, the U.S. Office of Global Internet Freedom agreed to sponsor a web proxy service for Iranian web surfers created by an electronic privacy software company called Anonymizer Inc. The service gives instructions in Farsi and allows Iranians to visit any website without being traced.

Iran’s backwards government has tried to bar reform, but merely outlawing something will not make it disappear. Iranians now have access to an unprecedented amount of information and new methods of expression, all on one medium. This knowledge brings them power. Eventually, it will make them free.

The “landslide” victory of Iran’s clerical regime should surprise no one. In a country where all power ultimately rests in the hands of a single religious tyrant, there is very little room for reform. But this concerted suffocation of real democracy cannot last. Iranians are demonstrating that one way or the other, they will participate in democracy–and practice their basic right to free speech–even if for now it is only on the Internet.

Luke Thomas is a fellow at the Digital Freedom Network.

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