The Islamic Republic takes another decisive step towards controlling cyberspace in Iran

On  7 March 2012 (17 Esfand 1390) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree calling for the creation of what he calls the “Supreme Council of Cyberspace”. Its list of members of reads like a veritable who’s who of the Islamic Republic’s key positions, indicating its perceived importance to the regime. The SCC is headed by the President and includes the Majlis Speaker, Judiciary Chief, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Commander of the National Security Force (police), the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Minister of Education, Research, and Technology, the Minister of Intelligence, and the head of the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic (Iran’s national broadcaster), among others. According to Khamenei’s decree, the three main responsibilities of the SCC include ensuring:

“…complete up-to-date awareness of cyberspace on the domestic and international levels…decision-making on active and thoughtful confrontation with this [cyberspace] in the areas of hardware, software, and content…and supervision over the precise implementation of decisions at all [administrative] levels.”

The creation of the SCC may mark a new stage in the history of cyberspace in the Islamic Republic, with the regime now incorporating a new strategic approach towards it. Whereas the governance of cyberspace in the past was done on an ad-hoc basis by various state entities with limited coordination, this new body brings together all key governmental stakeholders and concentrates the power to make and implement decisions regarding this issue. These actions trail closely behind the formation of the Passive Defense Organization of Iran (PDOI), headed by General Gholam-Reza Jalali, which has been tasked to deal with the defensive and offensive military dimension of cyberspace.

According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), on 24 March (05 Farvardin 1391), Mohammad-Reza Farajipour, Deputy Chief of Information Technology and Communication of the PDOI, announced that the organization was in negotiations with a number of universities, including Tarbiat Modarres University, Isfahan University of Technology, and Malek Ashtar University of Technology (a Ministry of Defence-linked educational and research institution) to create cyberdefense programs which would begin accepting students in the next academic year. Farajipour went on to say that another primary goal of the PDOI is to begin familiarizing Iranian civilian and military officials with the concept of cyberdefense, and would also preparing a special training course for this purpose.

Such activities may stem from the perceived threat posed by cyberspace, referred to by Khamenei as an “information tsunami”. At least since the controversial presidential election of 2009, cyberspace has been one medium where Iranians have been able to access information and communicate with relative freedom, bypassing heavy state censorship and control that exists in other media such as television, radio, and print. Significant challenges have been presented to the regime both in terms of upholding its dominance the domestic media narrative and control over Iranian culture. Furthermore, cyberspace is now also a new field of military competition with the outside world, as demonstrated by the alleged attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure via the Stuxnet and Duqu computer worms.

As the regime increasingly moves in the direction of a more authoritarian political system and closed society in the face of perceived external/internal threats, the latest steps towards greater government control over cyberspace appears logical. Does the creation of the SCC and PDOI signal the initialization of a National Internet? If so, what are its hopes of success- and would its success reaffirm the regime’s hegemony over domestic information and cultural narratives? Early indications do not bode well for the cause of freedom of expression and the free flow of information in Iran.