In the run-up to September 3, when Iran marks Quds Day with anti-Israeli demonstrations, web users in the capital Tehran noticed that internet connections were getting very slow.
Many suspected that the government had taken steps to limit web access in anticipation of trouble on the streets. On Quds Day last year, after all, the opposition Green Movement took advantage of the state-sanctioned presence of anti-Israel demonstrators to stage its own protest against the conduct of the June election, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won another term in office.
As one Tehran based journalist put it, “they think that by disconnecting the internet, they can prevent news being broadcast to the world”.
Over the last year, there has been a great deal of discussion of the disruptions to internet connectivity as an instrument for suppressing dissent, and what this says about the regime’s stability and its fear of mass opposition.
“Since the disputed election in 2009, the government of Iran has spent enormous amounts of resources on further restricting communications," according to Austin Heap, a United States-based software developer who is working to give Iranians unrestricted access to the internet.
“It’s just so unfair,” an Iranian activist said. “Everywhere else in the world, people are free to access websites. But now that they [Iranian authorities] have found out they can frustrate everyone by disrupting the internet, they do it every time there’s a public event that they fear will get out of hand.”
The daily experience of using the internet in Iran can certainly be frustrating. Everyday activities like reading the news or gossip columns online, or looking for information about education or business, can end up being blocked by an unexpected virtual barrier.
Even a journalist working for a state media outlet was upset by the restricted web access ahead of Quds Day.
“No matter how much time goes by, I will never get used to these internet disruptions. They filter websites on a whim,” he said. “I think they’re afraid of people and what they can do, because the filtering is not limited to sites opposed to the Islamic Republic – they even filter their own news websites, or else they make it almost impossible to access them. They are scared of the internet and the doors it opens for people. That’s why they want people to get their news only from the state media.”
Yet it would to overstepping the mark to read these disruptions to service as a sign the regime is going through some kind of existential angst, despite its undoubtedly flagging popularity.
In reality, the battle for control of the internet has less to do with politics than it has with hard commercial facts. In other words, the picture is more similar to other societies than it might seem.
The vision of a sort of Islamic North Korea held by some ultra hard-liners — Ahmad Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi come to mind — is feared by many in the opposition. But there is little chance Iran will suffer this kind of hermetic isolation from the outside world.
Instead, the future lies with those who want technological. This is a fact that is very well understood by many in positions of authority, not just their opponents.
Most of the top ayatollahs and politicians, including President Ahmadinejad, maintain an active web presence. The Supreme Leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even boasts a Twitter account. It is regularly updated, but ironically, it is one of many sites officially blocked in Iran, which may be one of the reasons why Khameneo has fewer than 800 followers on Twitter.
It is often argued that Iran’s clerical establishment has no interest in the economy, but this is an over-simplification. In fact, the system includes a multiplicity of often contradictory views and interests. There are many senior clerics as well as lay politicians who care very deeply about the state of the economy, not least since it affects their own commercial interests.
A growing number of them, including former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, seem to understand that the regime is doomed unless it can count on the support of most of its subjects, who need to feel their material expectations are being addressed. They suspect a majority of Iranians are more concerned to see a brighter economic future than a democratic one. This is probably an accurate read of social attitudes.
Business is shifting online in Iran, just as it is everywhere else in the world. Although Iran is often regarded as an anomaly in many ways, it is really no different from other countries when it comes to commerce.
The fact is that companies now need the internet in order to function, and the Islamic Republic will not survive if the commercial sector cannot do business.
Iran has an educated population which is aware of what is available in the global market. If the country is lagging behind in certain areas of technology, this is as a result of sanctions and other forms of economic isolation, not of any desire to remain disconnected on the part of the regime or the Iranian people.
Wireless networks, smartphones, internet banking and e-commerce sites all either exist already in Iran, or are on the verge of hitting the market. There is no way of stopping them, and when they arrive, they will bring change with them, and make efforts to curb the internet even less effective than they already are.
Heap predicts that the battle over internet access can only have one outcome – greater freedom and openness. The authorities’ efforts to block web communications have already proved unsuccessful.
“There have been rumours for many months that Iran would switch to an intranet and provide basic services like email to people. But the simple fact of the modern world is we're all connected, every bank and business, every hospital and non-profit,” Heap said. “So pick your poison – block everyone from communicating with the rest of the world, or leverage the technology that has brought huge benefits to societies around the world."
Ultimately, Iran may attempt to construct something like what exists in China, where the internet overall is reportedly one of the best running and most efficient systems in the world, but the government still manages to exercise surveillance and block sites it deems undesirable. Given Iran's technological track record, it is doubtful whether its web engineers could accomplish anything so streamlined. But if it did happen, it’s unlikely there would be many complaints.
Majid Habibi is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Tehran.