June 13, 2005

Internet boom alters political process in Iran (Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY)

If Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were alive today, he'd undoubtedly have his own Web site

All eight of those allowed to run for president by Iran's clerical establishment in elections this Friday have official Web sites as well as other sites run by supporters.

If Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were alive today, he'd undoubtedly have his own Web site.

All eight of those allowed to run for president by Iran's clerical establishment in elections this Friday have official Web sites as well as other sites run by supporters.

Internet usage is growing faster in Iran than anywhere in the Muslim Middle East, according to a recent Stanford University study. Although the Internet has not altered the power structure of the government, it has transformed campaigning and laid the groundwork for political change, Iranians inside and outside of the country say.

"We had our first revolution 100 years ago after the introduction of the telegraph; we got the Islamic revolution (in 1979) through the telephone and cassette tapes, and now we have the Internet," says Mohsen Sazegara, a regime official turned dissident who is organizing an Internet campaign for a referendum to replace Iran's Islamic constitution.

"So you have to expect another change," says Sazegara, currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Personal freedom is a major issue in the presidential campaign, as are the economy and Iran's relative isolation from the West. "There's no talk of revolution or Islam. It's all about how to respond to the people's needs," says Hadi Semati, a political science professor at Tehran University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

Candidates often use the unofficial political sites "to spread rumors and trash other candidates," says Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian who introduced blogging in Farsi three years ago and returned to Tehran Sunday to report on the campaign for his weblog, www.hoder.com.

Iranian newspapers print the information, citing the Web sites. "They are using this mix of media to influence the public. This is the first time in Iran," Derakhshan says.

The Internet allows the campaigns to bypass far more restrictive state-run television and the limited number of newspapers.

One example: Pictures of young people in stylish Western clothes carrying banners supporting Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who is a leading candidate, appeared on Web sites run by conservative opponents. The intention was to discredit Rafsanjani among devout voters, but the effect may have been the reverse, Derakhshan says, because of declining support for strict Islamic laws that have been in effect since the 1979 revolution.

On Saturday, a story on a conservative Web site reported that Rafsanjani would do a live interview on CNN for which he had paid the network. CNN confirmed that an interview is planned, but spokeswoman Mara Gassmann denied that any money had changed hands. The object of the false claim: to show that Rafsanjani is beholden to the West.

Rafsanjani, 70, a veteran of the revolution, is leading in the polls. But the gap is narrowing with Mustafa Moin, 54, a former minister of higher education who is appealing to President Mohammed Khatami's reformist supporters. The third-ranking candidate is Mohammed Bakr Qalibaf, 44, a former air force commander in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards and national police chief. If no candidate wins 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

Because of the limited choice, many Iranians may boycott the vote. A campaign urging them to stay home is also being promoted on the Internet. And whoever is elected president must still defer to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Internet explosion in late '90s

Nearly 5 million of Iran's 69 million people were Internet users in 2003, according to the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union. There may be as many as 100,000 blogs in the Farsi language, Derakhshan says.

The Internet was introduced in Iran in 1992 at the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Tehran. It remained an academic tool until 1997. Then the election of Khatami, a moderate cleric, as president led to a quick expansion.

By 1999, there were 1,200 Internet cafes in Tehran, according to Benham Tabrizi and Lily Sarafan, an associate professor and graduate student, respectively, in management and engineering at Stanford University. They delivered a paper at Stanford's Hoover Institution last year that said the number of Internet users could be at 15 million by the end of 2005.

"Three-fourths of Internet users are between the ages of 21 and 32, and 14% use the Internet 38 hours or more per week," Tabrizi and Sarafan wrote. "Iran's young population is more likely to turn to Google than Qom (Iran's main Shiite Muslim theological center) for the answers to their questions."

The campaign has dominated the Internet in Iran, including thousands of weblogs, known as blogs. Derakhshan started the trend.

A Web designer who wrote tech columns for Iranian newspapers, Derakhshan, 30, immigrated to Canada in 2000 after the hard-line Iranian judiciary closed his paper, Asr-e-Azadegan, along with other reform-minded publications. In 2002, he devised a way to use Farsi with free software and provided instructions on his site. Soon, Iranian writers shut out of the newspapers, young people looking for dates and others hungry for independent information moved into the blogosphere. Farsi is now the third most common language of blogs, according to Tabrizi and Sarafan, after English and French.

Iranians reuniting over Web

Unlike China, which has devised a way of blocking dissident sites, the Iranian government either does not have the means or has chosen not to filter out all political sites, Derakhshan says. Last fall, the government arrested a few dozen bloggers whose sites were overtly political. Most have been released.

About a third of Farsi-language blogs originate in Iran and the rest in a sizable Iranian diaspora of about 3 million, 2 million in the USA, Derakhshan says.

Among the most popular sites within Iran are Gooya.com, which originates in Belgium, and the Farsi service of the British Broadcasting Corp. Others include the weblogs of the reformist candidate Moin and Mohammed Abtahi, a former vice president.

An encouraging aspect of the Internet boom, says Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, is that it has reunited Iranians in Iran with those who fled the Islamic revolution, a dynamic that could dramatically accelerate democratic change.

"We in the diaspora can seriously participate in Iranian politics as vibrantly as those inside," Milani says." "allowing democratic forces to keep in touch."

"Those guys (in the Iranian leadership) don't know what has hit them yet," he says.


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