Iran Cyber Front: Rouhani’s cyber promises – Can, will he deliver?

Even before his surprise win in the 2013 Iranian presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani had given indications that, if elected, he intended to improve Internet conditions in Iran. It wasn’t only Rouhani and his supporters’ enthusiastic use of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, which the web-savvy candidate had mastered much better than his presidential rivals. There was something in the forcefulness of the way he criticized cyber-filtering and Iran’s often low Internet speeds. The Islamic Republic claims that it heavily regulates the Internet because of the fear of cyber attacks, as well as a means of maintaining public order and morality.

In an interview with Chehelcheragh Magazine, a publication aimed at youth, before the election, Rouhani was asked about his opinion on the Internet, social networks, and cyber filtering. He responded that much the same as nuclear technology, cyberspace was a tool that presented both opportunities and threats. Then candidate Rouhani contended that many of the individuals and institutions who supported filtering the Internet in Iran:

“…do not have well-intentioned goals. I mean that they do not really care about public morality or the threats posed to youth. They have political goals. They are afraid of the freedom which exists in this space, they seek to limit the news, and these limitations will not be successful. I wish the supporters of filtering would explain which news they have succeeded in limiting the people’s access to? Which important news in the last few years could filtering prevent people from accessing? These actions have not even become an obstacle to accessing immoral websites. Mass filtering had no other benefits except in thickening the walls of distrust between the people and government, harming our economy, and being an obstacle to the development of the positive uses of the Internet in Iran.”

In a televised speech on 6 June 2013, Rouhani touched the same issue from the perspective of Iranian students and researchers:

“We are in a situation in which our students and researchers are seeking to use the Internet and we cannot make the circumstances so that the person is delayed for hours and such circumstances are not worthy of our people and nation.”

His first conference following his victory in the election even highlighted the role cyberspace had played in mobilizing people behind his campaign, with the then president-elect proclaiming that:

“Everyone came, especially the dear young people, look at what they did, the streets, associations, athletic centers, and what tumult they created in cyberspace, I salute the exuberant young people of the homeland!”

Since then many of his gestures as president, and the actions of his Cabinet members, even if largely symbolic, appear to confirm the idea that Rouhani may attempt to open up Iran’s cyberspace, which suffers many problems from heavy filtering to bandwidth throttling to criminalization. In an exchange with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, who asked him whether Iranian citizens were able to read his tweets, Rouhani responded: “As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.” Besides the Iranian president himself, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and First Vice-President Eshagh Jahangiri are active social media users.

But has the Islamic Republic’s policy toward cyberspace actually changed? If it has, no one informed Rouhani’s Minister of Communication Mahmoud Vaezi, who is also head of the National Cyberspace Center and secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace. In a recent interview with ISNA, he was asked if social networking websites would be unblocked in Iran. Vaezi insisted that: “Websites such as Facebook and Twitter were not supposed to be unfiltered, and shall remain under the same circumstances as they have been.” When it was pointed out to him that some of his fellow Cabinet members were on social networks, and was asked about the situation of these people, he curtly replied that the reporter should “Ask those people themselves.”

As a Centrist who has stated he favors some expansion of freedoms in Iran but has also asserted that he is strong on national security, Rouhani’s position on cyberspace is complex. As noted above, he has claimed that cyberspace is filled with both threats and opportunities. The Islamic Republic has shown itself adept at managing the threats posed by the information sharing and mobilizing qualities of the Internet through hard responses such as filtering websites, throttling bandwidth, and even arresting Internet activists. But it has been equally adept at using these very same qualities for its own ends, such as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s opening of Facebook and Twitter accounts even before the 2013 election campaign began. In utilizing the Internet to his own ends, whether as a communication tool or a means of trading campaign promises for votes, but seemingly not pushing for major policy changes in this field, Rouhani is merely a follower and not a trendsetter. Indeed, it may be unfair to expect much of him on this issue given that this is one of the areas where his policy-making powers are limited.

Still, it is difficult to ignore the apparent contradiction between the great fanfare with which the Rouhani Cabinet has embraced the Internet (or at least certain aspects of it such as social networking) and his communication minister’s laconic and status-quo-affirming comments. Rouhani’s presidency will by no means be a success or failure based on this issue. But his actions in this area do matter, not only in terms of improving Internet conditions in Iran, but also fulfilling a campaign promise which is likely to keep his social base united and firmly behind him.