Since the election of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, social media have played a central role in his administration’s media strategy. Rouhani has two Twitter accounts — one in English, one in Farsi — that he uses to frequently tweet on matters of foreign and domestic affairs. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif uses Facebook to post daily updates and connect with Iranians in Persian. Even the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is hooked: He has shared more than 800 photos — most of which are action shots that show him at speaking events and meetings — with his 22,000 Instagram followers since 2012.
Rouhani’s administration has been embracing these digital media platforms as a means to bypass conventional media outlets and break the barrier to Iran’s isolation. And by using these platforms to engage in discourse with their constituents and the international community, the Iranian establishment is acknowledging the popularity of these networking websites.
But there’s a catch: Officially, access to social networks such as Twitter and Facebook is banned — leaving Iranians unable to legally access these sites. Iranians still find ways to access them by illegally downloading virtual private networks to bypass the state’s Internet filtering system. According to Iran’s Ministry of Sciences, 60 percent of Iranian university students use Viber and WeChat, and in a survey of 2,300 people, 58 percent reported using Facebook regularly, and 37 percent said they used Google+.
Yet the deep rift between policy and practice remains, and it’s the subject of constant infighting among rival factions in the government. This contradiction was highlighted in March when Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati told members of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce of the need to unblock Facebook, declaring that with 4 million Iranians already using it, the country will not be able to ban social media forever. Jannati, who noted that similar attempts to control communication tools such videos and fax machines were made after the 1979 revolution, said “[Iran] cannot restrict technology’s advance under the pretext of protecting Islamic values.” Iranian hard-liner Abdolsamad Khormabadi reacted vehemently and declared that there are no plans to stop filtering websites such as Facebook.
Iran’s stance on censorship and Internet access has been complicated since the emergence of social networking sites. After the disputed presidential elections in 2009, many Iranians took to Twitter to voice their dissent and organize protests, which led to the Iranian establishment to ban Facebook and Twitter.
Reform-minded Jannati, who is the son of a powerful Guardian Council hard-line cleric, has since made attempts to ease Iran’s strict Internet policies, but his efforts have been thwarted by Iran’s conservatives, who worry that their power is being undermined by Western influence. In early January, Jannati was criticized by hard-liners after an interview he gave with Al Jazeera English in which he called for the lifting of blocks on social networks and said he wished to see the Iranian judiciary “come along with the changes that are taking place in [Iran].” A representative for Iran’s judiciary criticized Jannati’s statements, saying he “is not at the level to comment on the judiciary’s affairs” — a line that suggests deep cleavages and domestic rivalries among members in Rouhani’s administration and the judiciary.
Since the last presidential election, Rouhani has voiced his intent to ease restrictions on censorship and Internet freedom. In an exchange with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Rouhani stated his belief that access to information is the right of Iranians, mirroring a similar promise he made when he told popular youth magazine Chelcheragh that as president, he would work to minimize censorship and that he believes Internet filtering is “futile”
However, nine months into Rouhani’s presidency, Iranians are facing a different reality from the one they were promised. Internet freedom has been curtailed, and censorship under Rouhani has become increased, calling into question whether this administration will ease access to the Internet. As relations between Iran and the U.S. continue to improve, the ideological and political battle over access to social media networks and Internet freedom has intensified, leading to clashes between hard-liners and moderates.
What most people don’t realize is that despite being president, Rouhani has very little influence or power when it comes to reforming policies governing social media, censorship and Internet freedom. There are many different entities and committees involved in the decision-making process, and the disagreements among these groups — along with their decentralized, complex and convoluted way of making decisions — make it difficult for anyone to make a difference.
A string of incidents late last year illustrate how fractious Internet regulation is in Iran. In December, Police Commander Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghaddam publicly criticized members of Rouhani’s government for their use of social networking sites. He told a group of reporters, “It’s not a good thing that certain government officials are attempting to slowly pass the red lines and enter an environment which is prohibited for other citizens. Accessing it through other means could also have legal and judicial consequences.” Then the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence unit arrested seven IT professionals and Internet specialists in the city of Kerman, accusing them of collaborating on projects that put Iran’s national security at risk and calling for “maximum punishment.” In December 2013 and January 2014, WeChat and Viber were blocked for Iranian users — which stands out as the most conspicuous case of filtering in Rouhani’s term so far.
Those who take Rouhani to task for insufficiently reforming Internet freedom policies should bear in mind that the task is more complicated than it appears.
The president could do very little to ease these restrictions. The main bodies involved in Internet censorship and filtering are the Supreme Council on Cyberspace (SCC), the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content, the Cyber Army and the Cyber Police. The SCC, which was formed in 2012 and is composed of top-ranking Iranian officials who operate under Khamenei, writes most of the rules regarding Internet censorship. Another major entity that was created after the 2009 disputed presidential election is the Committee for Identifying Instances of Criminal Content, also known as the the filtering committee. There are 12 members of this committee, half of whom are appointed by the administration’s ministries.
This is no excuse for depriving millions of Iranians of unrestricted Internet access — something that the United Nations has deemed a human right. But those who take Rouhani to task for insufficiently reforming Internet freedom policies should bear in mind that the task is more complicated than it appears. Access to social networking sites such as Facebook may be restored only after the state committee charged with determining offensive content decides that these sites are no longer offensive.
On the other hand, Iranians elected Rouhani on his promise to bring change and implement his vision in the political sphere, and at least publicly, he hasn’t put up much of a fight. Will he have the courage to stand up to his conservative colleagues? If he does, can it make a difference?