NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

Internet and the State: The Rise of Cyberdemocracy in Revolutionary Iran

Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008

Babak Rahimi, European University Institute, Florence.
Paper delivered at the ISA Conference, Brisbane, Australia. Rev: January 2003.

It was not long ago, in the not so long history of information and communication technology (ICTs), that the Internet was hailed as an emerging new democratic medium to undermine authoritarian regimes. Whether considering the increase in competence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on a global scale or the effect of information on local politics, cyberspace, understood as a digitally constituted means of communication, provided an exciting new frontier where political power manifested itself in a radical democratic way. Such cyber adventures into a virtual horizon anticipated rise of citizen empowerment (‘Netizens‘) in decision-making processes, fostering cross-regional networks of civic associations with a limitless supply of information by making transparent the internal life of authoritarian regimes to an unprecedented degree. With this assumption, politics appeared to move away from the traditional face-to-face political interaction and participation in physical spaces towards a more digitally structured, free-floating means of communication, one that would allow a radical retreat from all autocratic institutional spaces, in which speech is strictly kept under supervision. Here, the democratic threat of the Internet for authoritarian regimes was an obvious one: state domination can be held back from the unlimited boundaries of cyberspace, hence allowing autocratic power to yield to a more democratic virtual order. As former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, once remarked, attempting to control the Internet is like trying to nail Jello to a wall.

However salient, and needless to say unexpected, the force of the Internet might have appeared to some in its initial developments, authoritarian states soon came to adopt creative ways to hold back potential challenges posed by the new technology. As Boas and Kalathil argue in the two cases of China and Cuba, the Internet has not necessarily made authoritarian rule less stable. The regimes have learned to maintain control by using digital space to further extend their authority (Boas & Kalathil, 2001). The attempt to control the Net has been a complicated one. By applying a combination of two policy strategies, namely, ‘Reactive’ and ‘Proactive’, the authoritarian regimes have managed to expand their influence in the four spheres of political life, namely: mass public, civil associational organizations, economic and international civic groups -e.g. Transnational advocacy networks or CSOs. Since the expansion of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in the early 1990’s, authoritarian regimes have responded within this sphere of political life to curtail the effects of the new technology in such that the Internet has become in fact another site to extending the rule of autocratic regimes.

State control in reactive measures is most ‘visible, involving direct efforts to counter or circumscribe the potential challenges outlined above by clamping down on Internet use’ (ibid.:3). This form of policy is mainly patent in the case of Cuba, where cyber activity encounters direct state restrictions over the Net. In what the authors call the formation of a ‘national Intranet’ program, control of cyber-sites ensures that the regime monitors in what is being produced online. The measure allows the government to prevent the flow of information by establishing state-run Internet sites, and, therefore, limiting the private sector to access the Net.

In the case of proactive measures, however, control is orchestrated in a more complicated way. Such measures stem from the notion that the Internet itself can be used as a device to promote the authority of the state by implementing regime sponsored web programs, e-government services, state-controlled Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and, above all, self-censorship to curb the democratic drive of the Net. In the Chinese case, software devices have been sparsely used to filter content and censure web sites.[1] By making the Internet available to the public on the national level, the Chinese government promotes its authority by channeling on-line discourses, developing regime affiliated bureaucratic domains and commercially based government interest sectors on the Web, and even wage online ‘guerilla war and cyber attacks against data networks’ of domestic political dissidents (ibid.:10).[2] While challenges posed by the development of the Internet in recent years have been considerably managed by the regimes, the discrepancy in the uses of the two strategies remain salient in the ways the Internet‘s democratic force has been transformed into another authoritarian site for domination.

A dangerous illusion to earlier claims about the Net lied in the assumption that somehow the availability of means of information- be the triumph of the free press in the nineteenth century or the emergence of mass media from radio, television to Internet in the twentieth century– ultimately bolsters the practice of democracy. Whether one considers authoritarian or (transitional and consolidated) democratic polities, the role of mass media appears to have been overstated. Here, the question is not the way in which mass media can challenge the state, but how the state engages with the new technologies to greater its domain of control.

But to what extent can we identify these restrictions to deter the democratic quality of the Internet? In the particular case of authoritarian regimes, is the state able to put in place limits on the Net? While a study on the relations between mass media, society and state cuts across myriad issues, in this paper I identify the Internet as an encounter with a unique form of political communicative space and in terms of an emerging new building block for political mobilization. By using contemporary Iran as a case study, I want to argue for the democratic potential in the uses of the Internet by showing that there is in fact a groundbreaking path, in which the new technology is providing for the expression of political dissent: an online cyberspaces that transcend the control of authoritarian powers. What the paper maintains is that, despite diverse measures implemented to curtail the force of the Net as a new alternative space of political contestation, the Internet sustains creative ways for political dissent to challenge state control.

I offer here a review of the recent developments of the Internet technology in Iran since the early 1990s by considering these developments in context of the ongoing tension between the growing reformist political movement and the clerical authoritarian regime. The basic claim is that the development of the Internet in Iran has emerged as an alternative domain of political opposition against the regime in ways that further increases the current crisis of state legitimacy. Although the paper acknowledges the social limitations to the uses of the Internet, an attempt is made to sketch out the innovative force of the Net as unique and alternative domain of political opposition in confronting state hegemony.

From inactive to reactive strategy:

When in January 1993 Dr. Larijani, the director of the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (IPM), forwarded Iran’s first electronic mail as a greeting message to the University of Vienna administrators, he would have been surprised to learn that by end of the year 2003 the demand for Internet use in the country would soar to an estimated level of 1.2 million, one of the fastest growing rates in the world (MEED ,2001, September).[3] The fact that Iran became the second country in the Middle East- only preceded by Israel- to gain access to the Internet would have not been anything astonishing. After all, the Islamic revolution of 1979 was meant to put into practice the intrinsic relationship between scientific technology and religion; the revolution was an unprecedented event in modern history that emphasized the significance of faith in the scientific pursuit for knowledge. The surprise would have been caused, however, with the growing public interest in the Internet as a blow to the initial objective of the IPM, Iran’s main academic provider service, in acknowledging the Internet with the sole purpose of exchanging scientific ideas within the inter-university system. Similar to countries like the U.S. in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the U.S. Department of Defense and academic institutions placed computers in the exclusive hands of a few experts in the field, in just a decade, the community of the Internet users in Iran has transgressed the domain of a small number of specialists, mainly in the academic circles, and spread to the larger arena of mass consumption.[4]

While more Iranians discover the various uses of the Internet, the lack of technological expertise to cope with the changes has become the major challenge for the state. With more than 100 private ISPs on the rise, a developing technological scientific class of Net-experts and a mounting demand for unrestrained forms of technological communication by the mass public, the government-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) has been facing serious challenges as a result of the recent technological boom. The problem of course is not so much the lack of state policies to properly deal with the new information technology.[5] The main problem in the case of the Internet emerges in the domestic markets, where the lack of necessary expertise, industries and capital in the field of computer technology has left the state-controlled media with the challenging task to update the system.

In part, some of the difficulty seems to appear as a result of the force of technological commerce, and the state’s failure to take necessary steps to provide the country potential software development sites with the increasing internationalization of the market economy-as it has been the case in other Asian countries like India. But, for the most part, the strongest challenge lies with the curious Iranian public, where the use of the Internet appears to cut across age, class, gender and religious boundaries. As an indication of this rapid growth, Internet access, in Tehran at least, has developed to be so sophisticated in recent years that it has even surpassed some levels of European nations, like the UK. The Guardian reports in February 2002, ParsOnline is offering ‘Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) connection at 2Mbps, four times faster than that available to home users here, and for people out of ADSL catchments area, there are wireless links available, running at 5Mbps, something unheard of in the UK’ (Guardian, 2002, Feb). Such rapid, needless to say unusual, development largely reflects the mass anxiety to come to terms with the growth of global technology within the context of a waning economy and an on-going political crisis- a point that I will return to later.

With more than 70 percent of Iran’s 68 million populations born after the Iranian revolution, the domestic problems, which are seen by the public as setbacks to achieving a modern social order, seem to identify a new source of social relief. The Internet is viewed in this sense to qualify as a channel to express dissent within a new digital space of interaction that would involve the possibility of being connected with the outside world. The public recognition is that the Net holds a wealth of new scientific, cultural and political resources that ultimately promises progress for a nation at the brink of economic and political crises. As the Guardian quotes an Iranian computer store employee, ’… there is a sort of fever here in Iran. All the families who can afford it have a computer. All of the children are taking classes, and we sell a lot of educational software’ (ibid.:1). The ‘fever’ here is the encounter with a new culture of information technology, making available a virtual life that transcends the increasing domestic economic and political pressures.[6] What makes Iran a fascinating case study is the way in which the changing state-society relations reflects an ongoing-process of political transformation as acts of dissent are displayed in a wide range of public spaces, increasing the pressure for major alternations in the nation’s governance. While the 1979 militant revolutionary mobilization has given way to the reformist movement after the election of Khatami to power in 1997, the Internet has become a curious site of protest in the changing face of the Iranian politics.

A) Competing sectors and emerging non-sectors

As in China, prior to 1993, the Internet in Iran was still an untapped virtual resource to both civil and state institutions. However, whereas in China the technology was largely developed by the state in the form ofintra-governmental communicative resource, Iran’s first experience with the Internet appeared from a relatively state-independent institutional basis: the university. In fact, to this day most of Iran’s domestic Internet connections are still based in the academic institutions, the national academic network (IRANET.IPM), though additional outside links have become established by the Iranian Post, Telephone and Telegraph (PTT), providing service to both commercial agencies and governmental organizations. Despite earlier setbacks in the growth of information technology as a result of tensions between the IPM and the High Council of Informatics (HCI), a state branch mostly responsible for information technological expansion, Iran has been so far successful in developing a dynamic field of Telecom industry sector, independent of state control.

Contrary to conventional expectations, the Iranian state has so far welcomed the Internet by allowing numerous sectors, and non-sector associations, to access the technology without interference. There has been some obvious points of conflict between the state and the private sectors/non-sectors. But, tensions between state bureaucratic agencies, such as HCI and the Data Communication Company of Iran (DCI)- a branch of the PTT- and the emerging private technological sectors has appeared primarily in disagreements over improving the quality and the availability of network access, rather than finding ways to control Net content. Internet use in the economic sphere has so far posed multiple challenges to the government. The state information bureaucratic agencies have grown uneasy in the domestic telecom market in competition with the developing ISPs.[7] Here, the momentous role of the Iranian ISPs to creating dynamic institutional bases for the development of the Internet has been significant.

Vibrant and innovative in outlook, Iran’s ISPs have opened up both institutional and non-institutional spheres of competitive commercial and political activism, unprecedented in the history of Iran’s information technology. This has been largely evident in the foundation of IRANET, the Information and Communication Network of Iran, in 1993 by N.J. Rad, a subsidiary of Pilot Iran, a private company. Operating together as a large bulletin board system and offering full Internet access, E-mail services, electronic publishing and Internet service design (World Wide Web), numerous organizations have gone online in a relatively flexible market-driven environment to conducting business. Along with the academic sector, the commercial industry in Iran maintains an active presence on the Net. With the changing technology, the Internet companies are creating new online jobs that help to cut down Iran’s 12% unemployment rate (Guardian, ibid.: 1); they are providing services for the general consumption in ways unprecedented in the history of the Iranian economy. The rapidly growing Internet use in the commercial sphere, thus, presents a significant opportunity for the growth of entrepreneurship in Iran, and an emerging middle class with the ability to invest in the domestic markets.

The role of the state in the development of the Internet has also been impressive. The government has helped to codify contracts and restructure the technologies to attract international investment. In recent years, there have been attempts to make some changes in the protectionist legal clauses, a significant obstacle to Iran’s troubled economy, for attracting foreign investment in the country’s telecom market. As Ahmad Motamedi, the minister of telecommunications points out, ’We are now taking our first steps towards privitization and establishing regulatory policy which would allow the entry of the private sector (BBC, November, 13).[8] This remark is made as the economy increasingly moves away from government sponsored programs, mostly institutionalized under the presidency of Rafsanjani after the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-88, towards more privatized schemes, assumed to improve incentives for economic growth.

But the shift not only entails changes in the infrastructure of the Telecommunication for promoting investment, as a way to remedy Iran’s troubling rentier economy, but also facilitating the growth of new forms of commercial activity that increase demands on the state‘s control of society. With legal reforms, the Internet has been not only technologically upgraded with the economic changes on the short-term basis, but expanded to a larger degree in accordance with the global Internet by further opening up the domestic sites to commercial industries, transnational net works of CSOs, and other political (non-sector) groups.[9] Here, once again, the ISPs have played a crucial role. As recent developments show, opening the telecom market to foreign investors have enabled the privately owned Iranian ISPs to promote their sites outside of the country. With the possible emergence of a new domestic Net-business class, the ISPs present a significant opportunity to expanding the Iranian economy on both domestic and international markets by anticipating certain forms of political liberalization- though not necessary an inevitable outcome.

Accordingly, the most significant aspect of these structural changes lies in the increase exposure of the public to ICTs, providing access to the international community by creating pluralistic domains of interactions and participations in a mundane sense. The ’mundane’ here implies the ways in which the Internet is encouraging everyday interaction-both political and non-political- to turn to online services. Here, the growth of cyber-showrooms and advertisements, e-mail, Internet service design, and especially the popular use of chat rooms, facilitated mostly by state-independent ISPs, has opened a new non-sector to emerge on the scene, namely, the mass public.

Although we can say that exposure to alternative sectors and non-sectors outside of the country plays a central role in the spread of the domestic Internet among the youth in Iran, the cause for the rapid rise of a mass public, however, can be explained with the growing young population in Iran. The current demographical shift in the country identifies a major source for the high demands from the public in the new technology. In correlation with the demographic changes, the growth of (especially private) universities has further opened up a new dimension in the popularity of the Internet among the young student population. The massive university intake since the end of the 1988 war, especially from the female population, has allowed a large educated public mass to access the Internet through the academic institutions.[10] This presents significant changes while a growing non-academic public- especially the younger population- is finding the Internet as an alternative arena for social interaction- especially with the use of chat rooms and online entertainment services (Web, 2001).[11] This can be seen not only as a broadening of the intellectual horizons of the mass public with the spread of information with development of the Net, but also as a considerable cultural shift in popular culture in that, to use Ansari‘s words, ‘… suggest that technological penetration of society is far deeper than might be expected’ (Ansari, 2000:65). The new generation has found an innovative way to build online communities where couples meet to chat, young men dress as they wish and young women go uncovered without being harassed. Coupled with an internationally acclaimed growing popular film industry and striking demand for satellite use, Internet appears to further complement changes in the way the mass public restlessly aspires to interact with the world. As one would expect, this broadening of perspective goes beyond mere mundane activities. The state-independent depth of the impact has to do with the ways in which the Net has also become a political arena for dissident groups to voice their opinions against the state where in ‘real time’ and ‘real space’ they would be limited in doing so.

B) State responses

As mentioned earlier, until recently Internet use in Iran has been free of control. Unlike other Middle Eastern states, namely, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates[12], Iran has so far encouraged the expansion of the Internet, and it has actively participated in its development mainly on institutional level. This might come as surprise since in the other forms of information technology persistent measures by the hardliner authorities has produced tough policies to circumscribe possible threats posed by the ICTs and the mass media. But up to the present moment, there has been no systematic strategy to block web sites, filter content or clamp down on the use of the Internet in Iran. Even when the government closed down more than 450 cafés in mid-May, just a month before the presidential elections 2001, the move was not meant to prevent the use of the Internet, but to reduce high-speed access to the Net due to the use of low-cost ’voice over IP’ (VOIP) telephone calls abroad that was, in return, undermining TCI‘s revenues (Radio Free Press, 2001, July).[13]

The role of state involvement is crucial. So far, the Iranian state has seen unprecedented changes in its technological infrastructure, mainly in the form of creating Internet governance. The first step has involved an attempt to design e-government programs on the web in order to improve the state bureaucracy. This appears to be the hallmark of the government’s new policy to decentralize the state and improve efficiency as various major governmental agencies (e.g. Iran Air, Budget and Planning Organization of Iran, Ministry of Energy, National Iranian oil…) find themselves online for improved intra-governmental interaction and efficient public services.[14] The project is still expanding, while additional state-run industrial organizations and governmental agencies attain full Internet access. Likewise, state institutions are finding themselves surfing the Net on the ‘pretext that government business necessitates it‘ (Ansari, 2000: 67). With the policy of Net governance, the Internet is not necessarily becoming more governmentalized; it would be more appropriate to say that the government is becoming more Internetized.

What the Iranian case shows us is that engagement with the Internet by the state is more like encountering a forum in which the government finds itself operating as another online actor, rather than a regulative force to manipulate the discourses online. In this context, there has not been a clear-cut government policy for the Internet since its introduction in 1993. This is due to state’s own ambivalence towards the new information technology that has so far facilitated complications to an already turbulent political life in Iran. There are, I argue, four main reasons for this ambiguity.

First and foremost, on a practical level, the absence of censorship is largely due to technical challenges, in which the government has not yet been able to tackle (Radio Free Europe 2001, July). This, in comparison, puts Iran far behind China’s advanced techno-computer scientific infrastructure, where a sophisticated use of reactive and proactive measures has affirmed state authority in the field of technology. The second obvious advantage is the economy. I have already touched upon the economic benefits of the Internet in tandem with the current privatization policies of the state, a factor that has been especially advanced in measure since the presidency of Khatami’s in 1997. But the Net has impressed the Iranian state in ways that other ICTs have failed. The authorities have hailed the Internet as a new source to promoting the state in attempting to alleviate political pressure while projecting an aura of ’modernization’ in engagement with the new technology. This is perhaps the most crucial point in Iran’s handling of the Net. The positive reaction complies with the initial ideological project of the Islamic republic to export the revolution around the world within the currents of modernity, understood here in terms of technological advancements. The Internet has been attractive to the authorities, and civic institutions associated with the clerical regime, as a potential forum for online discourse of ideological propagation.

First, the Net has become a new site for the government to present its ideological perspective on current affairs. This stems largely in reference to state sponsored news agencies and official civic organizations that aim to promote the status of the Islamic republic and the clerical authorities around the world.[15] The state sponsored clerical authorities, for instance, in the notoriously conservative cities of Mashad and Qom are busy building websites, providing their interpretation (tafsir) of the Quran on the homepages.[16] There is more to the Net than a simple lucrative business. As Ansari explains, ‘…internet use has been given a boost in the belief that is the ideal vehicle for ‘exporting the revolution.’ He adds, ‘Far from advocating an insular purity, many clerics began to argue by embracing the new technology and harnessing it to good use as they saw it, a more confident Islamic Revolution would be better able to spread the word’ (Ansari, 2000:66). Second, the Internet is providing an opportunity for the authorities to propagate the State Shi‘a ideology on the web.

But there is more. By making the Internet available to the mass public, the state has found an alternative channel to further legitimize its power in the face of internal strife over the definition of the revolutionary state. The non-censorship policy has been in place, mainly, to affirm the original ideology of the Islamic Republic by permitting new technologies to extend state authority. Instead of a proactive measure, in which the government fully participates with the technologies to further advance its authority, the Iranian state has maintained a passive involvement in the process of the Internet development, so far. This is most visible, for instance, in the case of ISPs. Though access providers are responsible for preventing access to ‘immoral’ or anti-state material, for the most part, such legal constraints are merely written on paper rather than executed in practice.[17] Many Iranian ISPs operate on a relatively free basis, at times even openly defying the state by offering ‘Uncensored, no Filters’ services (Guardian, 2002, February).

The logic of inactive strategy manifests the essentially ideological aspect of the authoritarian regime in terms of promoting scientific technology for the benefit of the revolutionary ideals. This is so since the Islamic republic is indebted to mass media as a major cause for its establishment in 1979. Here of course I have in mind the use of audiotape as a way to spread the words of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, once exiled as a political dissident during the Shah’s regime in the 1960‘s and 70‘s. Historically, mass media, in particular print media, has played a significant role throughout the history of revolutionary Iran- including both the constitutional revolution of 1905-09 and the Islamic revolution of 1979. As Gheissari notes, in the absence of political parties, the media has provided the major, and at times the only, forum for political actors to express themselves and actively engage in political life (Gheissari, 1998, 78-84). In fact, for over a century revolutionary Iran has been a virtual community with the mass media, producing invisible communities of political actors. The development of the Internet in this sense has simply extended that historical process, rather than introduce a new era. What makes the Internet an interesting development in relation to authoritarian state-building is that it has in fact actualized the common and invisible (virtual) public spaces, in which political relations occur, and which everyday life undergo an experience of constant process of virtuality.

This point is further complicated as the revolutionary state continues to experience a crisis of legitimacy. The conflict was unleashed with the election of Khatami to presidency in 1997. Mainly backed by the general public, civic organizations and the intellectual community, all critical of the very political validity ofVelayat-e Faqih (the guardianship of jurisconsult)- the political dogma behind the Islamic Republic, Khatami‘s presidency has brought to life an energetic political force by emphasizing the rule of law and civil society, Jama’ah Madani, as requisites to a free society.[18] As part of these challenges, thinkers like Kadivar, Soroush and Shabestari, advocated a pluralistic form of sovereignty amid a changing environment of political discontent with the Islamic Republic.[19] Their main concern was directed at the non-democratic institutions of the state, in particular the non-elected elites that identify authoritarian elements in the political establishment. Meanwhile, the student protest of the summer of 1999 opened up the arena of political dissent to the grass-root youth organizations. By basing itself on mass-based popular support, the reformist movement marked a unique period in the history of revolutionary Iran with the potential to challenge the stability of clerical regime. Although experiencing harsh responses from the conservative authorities, the movement has emerged to redefine the foundation of the Islamic Republic.

This crisis of legitimacy emerges within a complex political system. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has witnessed the institutionalization of two significantly distinct political arms of authority, that is the elected Majlis (parliament) and the presidency on the one hand, and an appointed branch, namely the clerical office of Velayat-e Faqih, a deputy representing the Hidden Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam of the Shi‘a religion.[20]rd movement, has re-emerged to circumscribe the challenges posed by the conservative faction. The institutionalization of a twin-state structured political authority reflects the complicated coexistence of the secular, the elected branch, and the appointed elite, the religious figure, representing the ultimate status of sovereignty. It was within this complex system of political and religious co-existence that inherently led the way to conflict as the two spheres of governance began to redefine their political positions within the state apparatus and, more importantly, on the constitutional level. With the re-election of Khatami to the presidency in 2001, the crisis has intensified as the dynamic reformist currents, known as the May 23

The recent attacks by the hard-line authorities on the reformists print media have become a testimony to this crisis. This can be identified with the polarization of Iranian political culture, especially after the 6th[21] Coupled with the rapid growth in the publication of magazines and newspapers since 1997, the mass media has witnessed an unprecedented shift in the development of civic associations predominantly emerging from the reformist camp (Menashir, 2001:131-152). Given the popularity of the press and the dangers posed to the authorities, the conservatives have taken measures to ban news agencies and imprison some of the reformist leaders in charge. Crackdown on the reformist press has not only generated resentment between the factions within the state institutions, such as tensions between the parliament and Assembly of Exports (a branch that monitors and appoints the supreme leader), but also signaled the hardliner’s determination to block the reformist attempts to challenge the establishment via the mass media.[22] But the friction continues to persist as reformists carry on to publish material critical of the conservative authorities, while the conservatives continue to press to ban reformist news-papers. These tensions, however, demonstrate that the press has become an ongoing battle ground for the political adversaries struggling for legitimacy as the Iranian society continues to experience greater changes with the on-going political crisis. parliamentarian election in March 2000 when the conservatives launched a series of clampdowns on the reformist-dominated press in a way to tackle the threat of opposition. The move came about towards the end of the 1990 when the print press increasingly expanded its public domain with Khatami‘s election victory.

How relevant is the Internet to this conflict? The fact that the Internet has been uncensored-so far at least- allows us to acknowledged its unique significance in this political ambience of competing ideals. The Internet marks an alternative platform for the reformists to challenge their antagonist for a war of words, expanding the crisis in ways that could have not been possible in previous political settings. Consider the famous case of Ayatollah Montazeri, a dissident cleric once in line to be Iran’s supreme leader. Montazeri shocked the conservatives in December 2000 when he put his 600-page memoir on the Internet (http://www.montazeri,com/), criticizing the ideological foundation of the state. The 81 years old Ayatollah, who was chosen to succeed after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, expressed his fierce opposition not only against the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi, but the very political dogma of Velayat-e faqih online, considered blasphemous in the eyes of the hardliners. Where the political has become more of a limited pursuit in the ’real’ spaces of everyday life, where decision-making processes are constrained under the forces of constitutionally enforced authoritarian state institutions, the Internet has opened a new domestic arena of contestation, accommodating numerous dissident civic organizations online.

In other cases, journalists and pro-reformists have all found something interesting on the Net. Consider the following cases. Akbar Ganji, a pro-reformist journalist, and Saed Ibrahim Nabavi, a prominent reformist, jailed since the parliamentary elections, have gone online to battle with the authorities in cyberspace.[23]gooya.com (Dareini, 2001, May).[24] The letter was later electronically sent to the Associated Press for world attention. Their efforts come about as political actors outside of the country play a key role in mounting campaigns for their freedom. This is meanwhile greater challenge emerges from the least expected quarters. Here, the case of Mohsen Sazgara is also worth a mention. A leading reformist, Sazgara puts online his daring letter to the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic on the freedom of speech, on the popular Iranian website,

The most interesting step in highlighting the effect of the Internet in the Iranian society was marked by the May 1997 presidential election. On the level of mass political participation, in an unprecedented way, the 1997 elections saw the meeting of the two candidates, Mohamad Khatami (http://www.khatami.com) and the runner-up Majlis speaker, Ntegh-Nuri (http://nategh.co.ir) on the Net.[25] While the two candidates fought their votes for presidency, the most important impact, however, appeared on the grass-root level: the student movement. the Internet played a significant role in the uprising of the summer 2000, when students mobilized their opposition against the conservatives in chatrooms, organizing meetings, interacting and communicating electronically as the state continued to close down public places, in particular the university.

In reaction to these serious challenges posed by the Internet, it should be obvious that the authority’s response would be an harsh one. In an already fractional state, the conservatives are now taking reactive measures to counter the political impact of the Internet. Recently, however, Judiciary chief, Ayatollah Shahroudi, has called for ‘establishment of a special committee for legal investigation on Internet-related crimes and offenses’, proposing legal measures concerning the creation of a new legal office that deals especially with Internet-related offenses (Reuters, 2002, November). Although resistance is certain to appear once debate reaches the parliament, an attempt has been made by the authorities to create a national Intranet under the auspices of TCI (MEED, 2001, November). With this move, the conservative elites are beginning to acknowledge the significance of the new information technology as something more than a mere means of communication to spreading information; they are realizing its potential as a new political forum, wherein the state is challenged in more complicated ways than expected. As Ahmad Janati, a senior cleric, puts it, the Internet is like a ‘poison poured into the mouth of the people’. He adds, ‘The child who has been poisoned is taken to the hospital and treated’, but this kind of poison ‘is not easy to remedy…even with 100 doctors at the bedside’ (Menashri, 2001: 190).


What the development of the Internet in Iran demonstrates is the way in which diverse oppositional groups, sectors and civic associations participate in a struggle against their opponents within a distinctive space qualifying for a peculiar form of political interaction. Here resistance lies at the heart of the political process present on the Net. While the state attempts to counter or circumscribe forms of dissent online, opposition (re) emerges in the most invisible and indirect forms to undermine the authoritarian state. Even more importantly, the state itself experiences a radical change once engaging with the Internet, as the dispositional feature of cyberspace breaks down the very authority that the state aims to extend in virtual reality. The Iranian case demonstrates that, as a result of a crisis of legitimacy in an authoritarian state, the adversaries in cyberspace can turn political strife within a decentralized and disembodied virtual space.

On the relationship between the Internet and authoritarian states, this paper has left many critical issues untouched. While attempting to argue for an alternative conception of computer based information technologies as a source for the formation of a new form of polity, I have not, for instance, discussed the impact of CMC on stratification processes in terms of class and status production online. For the moment I maintain though that any decisive judgment about the new technology is still too premature. Having said that, I think what is important to bear in mind is not just the limitations, mainly induced by perceptible ways we encounter the new technology, but long-term latent transformation that can be deciphered only in due course of time.

One can still view the Internet development as a new potential form of political activity in such that disempowered groups and grass-roots movements find an alternative space to become part of the political process. Despite the constant accusation of elitism regarding the Internet, there is still considerable evidence to show that the new technology is significantly penetrating societies on grass-root level.[26] With the case of Iran, the future relationship between the Internet and democracy still remains in the process of making; but, more importantly, the process also shows the continuous unmaking of authoritarian establishments.

In the Transparent Society (1992), Gianni Vattimo argued that mass media, including computer information technologies, play a significant role in the emergence of a new form of political society. It is not that they make society more ‘transparent, but more complex, even chaotic, and finally that it is in precisely this relative ‘chaos’ that our hopes for emancipation lie.’ (Vattimo, 1992: 4). The chaos that Vattimo heralds here is, in what I regard, the promise of a new political reality in a virtual space of alternative political power. Here both the Internet and the political currents in Iran show us a new democratic possibility for political action in a world that appears to offer no other alternatives. In the title of the paper, I have used the term ‘revolutionary’ rather that ‘post-revolutionary’ Iran; in respect to the Internet, by this I hope to show that there is still a revolution underway, however silent it may be.


[1] This does not mean that China merely limits its strategy to a proactive method to monitor the Internet. It is interesting to note, as Boas and Kalathil explain, China has also been filtering material for deemed politically sensitive material on the Web. These are done by mostly block or subvert critical information against the regime in place of state propaganda. In case of chat rooms, Chinese Server Providers employ censor administrators to keep an eye on the material from bulletin boards. See Boas & Kalathil (2001: 6).

[2] China appears to be the only state that is forcefully pursuing this strategy on a global scale. This move by China is not so much to prevent the rise of domestic political opposition via the Net, but an overall endeavor to develop the state’s military technology on a competitive basis with the U.S. See Ming Zhang (1999,Nov-Dec: 16-18).

[3] Quoting statistics from Pyramid Research, however, the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) suggests that Iran is rapidly increasing its Internet users form 250,000 in 2000 to 450,000 in 2001, a changing ratio of 30% for every six months that could reach 1.2 million by the year 2003 (MEED, 2001, November). This is to bear in mind that much of the current rapid change is taking place in the context of, what Braude calls, ‘antiquated copper cable-based telecommunications infrastructure’ that is currently being renovated by the telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) in order to keep up with the growing demands (Radio Free Europe, 2001, July).

[4] The central objective for DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Program Agency) in introducing computer mediated communication in the late 60’s was mainly to share information by way of electronic mail from one person to another. However, this mailing process was quickly transformed into mailing lists as each message often contained information to be shared by more than one user. Usenet, as collection or repository of numerous newsgroups available on the Internet, can be traced back to the early 70s when bulletin boards marked the emergence of the first subscribed mailing list, dialed through regular telephone line with a computer modem connected to another computer.

[5] As the case of banning the satellite dishes demonstrate, the state has the ability and the will to quickly mobilize against the use of new media technologies as potential threats to the establishment. But increasing demand for western programs, the government ban on the use of satellite was futile. It did not take long for the state to discover the flourishing illegal use of satellite dishes, along with fax machines, DVD drives and video programs, as it proved little point in attempting to curtail the ongoing expansion of the new technology in the country.

[6] It is interesting that the reasons for the inexpensive computer products in Iran have to do primarily with the U.S. embargo on Iran. Since its inauguration back in the hostage crisis and extended with the Iran-Libya Act (ILSA) in 1996, the embargo has forced the private technology sector of Iran to seek the acquisition and maintenance of satellite and computer equipments, such as software and technical parts in the pirate market of south Asia, hence providing cheaper access to computer technology.

[7] Friction between state agencies and private Internet providers, mainly service sectors, intensified once the current state Telecommunication Company closed down a number of Internet Coffee shops after discovering that many were using online services to call abroad. This was due mainly to the cheap availability of international connections via the Internet that simply won out over rates offered by TCI.

[8] Ahmad Motamedi, the minister of telecommunications tells BBC, ‘We are now taking our first steps towards privitization and establishing regulatory policy which would allow the entry of the private sector’. See BBC article ‘Iran to open telecoms market’, BBC (2001, November). This would mark a crucial step by the state towards privatizing the economy, as communication technology in Iran faces urgent need of infrastructure upgrading.

[9] Consider the case of APADANA, a private ISP based outside of Iran, offering Web services (including Java programming and email services) while providing virtual domain services with Internet access in Iran and abroad. For more on Iran’s ISPs see the following site: www.iranispassociation.com, an umbrella organization for dozens private providers.

[10] Fathi notes, ‘Nearly every university in the nation is now wired to the global network, as are hundreds of elementary and high schools (International Herald Tribune, 2002, August).

[11] This is made mainly in reference to the rise of ‘coffee-nets’ where the use of voice chat has become an inexpensive way for the young to have conversation online, as the Islamic state continues to impose its moral guideline for the separation of the sexes in the public places. As Shams notes, much of the success of the Iranian ISPs rests in the growing demand of the younger population for the use of the Internet- a point I shall turn to in due course (Web, 2001).

[12] See Human Rights Watch, The Internet in the Middle East and North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship (New York, Human Rights Watch, 1999).

[13] The main objective in this case was to reduce the loss of international long-distance profits caused by the popular use of (VOIP). See the article ‘Internet is Transforming Iran’ (Radio Free Europe, 2001, July).

[14] As of 1994, 10% of the governmental agencies were already provided with network technologies, though the percentage has increased, especially with the election of Khatami to power in 1997.

[15] See, for instance, state-run news websites like http://www.kayhannews.com/ or http://www.irna.com/. For the official site of the Ayatollah Khamenai, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic, at the city of Qom see http://www.wilayah.org.com/.

[17] An Internet provider is required by law to ask the user to sign an agreement not to access to ‘immoral’ material.

[18] The doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih was introduced by Khomanie in his 1971 book, Hukumat- I Islami (Islamic government), where he argued that Islam is self-sufficiently capable of establishing laws for government and administration to shaping a just society. In absence of the twelfth Imam, a faqih, or the high cleric, is responsible to govern justly and rule over an Islamic society in place of the absent Imam according to the sacred laws of Quran and the Tradition. The doctrine was put in practice after the 1979 referendum in support of an Islamic state. See Heinz (1997).

[19] It is worth noting that many of the dissident intellectuals were ardent participants in the 1979 revolution and even took offices in the Islamic state-at least in its formative years, 1980-88. Soroush for instance worked for the state university and strongly advocated the ideals of Velayat-e Faqih, as preached by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. For a recent study of Soroush’s intellectual life see Boroujerdi (1996).

[20] By ‘Shi’a religion’ I mean the Imami sect of Twelver Shi’sm.

[21] It is interesting to point out here that some of the independent news agencies have gone online, producing their printed material while publishing it on the web. For a good example, see http://www.hamshahri.com.

[22] According to the constitution, the Assembly of Experts is the only foundation in the government that stands over the supreme leadership, supervising his actions and checking his performances. Given the fact that traditionally the conservatives have dominated the branch identifies a deeper level of factionalism inherent in the political system of the Islamic Republic.

[23] Akbar Ganji, one of the leading journalists and contributors to the reformist’s journal of Rah-e Now, Tehran weekly, was jailed in April 2000 for accusing the former president Rafsanjani on the internet for the chain murder of writers and intellectuals in 1998. Saed Ibrahim Nabavi, a satirist and a writer, jailed for his daring approach towards the conservative establishment in 2000. See websites: http://www.akbarganji.com/ and http://www.nabavi.online.com.

[24] In this letter, Sazgara directly blames the supreme leader for some of the major problems in the country. There he argues that Khamenehi’s repressive policy towards the journalists and intellectuals has brought ‘enmity’ for the Iranian people, encoring dictatorship and stifling freedom of expression.

[25] In fact, the result of the elections were announced ‘live’ on the web site of the Iranian government, meanwhile state-independent news agencies, like Hamshahri, and state official press organizations, like Ettela’at, competed for the latest report.

[26] Consider the case of Zimbabwe, where the democratic opposition has resisted Robert Mugabe’s regime and its monopoly of information in the rural regions by e-mailing daily news bulleting to other rural sites, where they are printed and distributed by children on bikes. See (Economists, 2001, April 7-13).



Ansari, Ali, M. (2000). Iran, Islam and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change. London: The Royal Institute Affairs.

Boroujerdi, Mehrzad. (1996) Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Gheissari, Ali. (1998) Iranian Intellectuals in the 20th Century. Austin: University of Texas, 1998.

Heinz, Halm. (Tr.) Brown, Allision (1997). Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.

Keck, Margarat & Sikknik, Kathryn. (1988). Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Khomeini, Ruholla. (1979) Islamic Government. Springfield, Va: Reproduced by National Technological Information Service, U.S. Department of Commerce.

Menasheri, David. (2001) Post-Revolutionary Politics in Iran: Religion, Society, and Power.

Vattimo, Giani. (Tr) Webs, David. (1992) The Transparent Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Articles And Articles from Internet Database

(1999)The Internet in The Middle East and Africa: free expression and censorship. The Human Rights Watch. New York. Web site: http://www.hrw.org/advocacy/internet/mena/html.

Boas, Taylor and Kalathil, Shanthi. (2001) “The Internet and State Control in Authoritarian Regimes: China, Cuba and Counter-Revolution.” Retrieved from http://www.ceip/org/files/publications/wp21.asp-html.

Ming, Zahng. (2000) ‘War without rules’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientific: November-December, volume 55, number 6.

Shams, Korush. (2001) ‘This time, the culprit is the Internet’ (in Persian), Web, 19, February.

(2001), ‘Biking the Samizdat’, Economist: April 7-13.

(2001), ‘Internet is Transforming Iran’, Radio Free Europe: July. Retrieved http://www.rferl.org/welcome/english/releases/2001/07/44-160701.html.

(2001) ‘Iran Clamps down on Internet‘ , Middle East Digest, V. 47, N. 47, November.

Hammersley, Ben. (2002). ‘Iran Nets Another Revolt‘. Guardian: February. Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,653282,00.html.

(2002), ‘Iran to open telecom market’, BBC: November.

Sedarat, Firouz. (2002), ‘Iran Move to Monopolize Internet Access Draws Fire’, Reuter: November.

(2002), ’Iran flirting and frank discussions online, with no controls’, International Herald Tribune, August.

The author may be contacted via email to brahimi77@hotmail.com

All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted in any format without permission of the Author.


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