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President Hassan Rouhani is fond of rhetorical flourishes that promise Iranians freer access to virtually all forms of information, from satellite television to uncensored books to a less tightly-regulated press. While in all of the aforementioned areas his policies have failed, or failed to exert themselves, there is one domain where the Rouhani government has pushed forward seriously: securing Iranians better and faster internet connections, including mobile internet that would enable them to properly use the smartphones they buy with such enthusiasm.
In remarks to a group of clerics on Monday, Rouhani presented the internet as crucial to the nation’s progress in both science and academic research, areas that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also identified as paramount to Iran’s development. “We cannot cannot close the gates of the world to our younger generation,” Rouhani said.
He warned that if Iran refuses to tolerate the technological needs of a savvy young generation now, “we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow.”
Though Rouhani has backtracked on a number of cultural reforms in the face of fierce hardline opposition, he has been steadfast in backing his internet ideals with hard policies. In the past two weeks, the government has granted 3G and 4G licenses to the country’s two main mobile operators, and has in recent months also permitted internet providers to increase bandwidth on home connections.
One reason why the president has been more willing to back the provision of higher speed internet is that so far, it has come at a more reasonable political price. Because service providers still implement government filters, the state censorship regime that prevents Iranians from accessing websites deemed “immoral” — everything from Facebook to many Persian news sites — will remain in place. While faster connections do mean that Iranians can more nimbly use proxy servers to get around the state filters, the speeds are still slow by developed world standards, requiring great patience from those wishing to use the internet to its full capacity. But 3G and mobile internet remain issues highly contested by hardliners made nervous by the challenges of filtering mobile devices.
Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makaram Shirazi last week issued a fatwa declaring high-speed and mobile internet haram, later comparing mobile internet to “muddy water” that requires filtering. Rouhani has sought to bypass these concerns by making the case for the internet’s importance as a research tool for scientific progress. As Rouhani joked in an 30 August press conference, the speeds that the country’s clerics are advocating are slow enough to make someone waiting to download an article fall asleep.
This framing of the issue is a canny approach, for it challenge Khamenei to back up his ardent support for Iranian scientific empowerment with policies that might otherwise make him uncomfortable. This past July at a meeting with university professors, Khamenei praised the work of the country’s “scientific movement”, saying that it “has achieved great objectives and become recognised on the international scene”.
By linking the objectives most dear to Khamenei to his own objective of pulling Iran out of the internet dark age, Rouhani is carving out a political space where his goals are seen to overlap with those of the supreme leader.
When the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content sought to block access to the popular mobile messaging tool WhatsApp, Rouhani intervened. While this certainly endeared him to young Iranians who used the messaging service widely, Rouhani also risked riling the National Telecommunications Company, which is losing revenue as Iranians turn to cheaper foreign alternatives for messaging.
In the battle over control of the internet, there are multiple institutions across political factions vying for a role, with the competing financial interests of various mobile, 3G and telecoms providers underlaying the fray. But what’s clear is that Rouhani has chosen the internet as one of the rare areas where he will back rhetoric with clear policy.
Iranians stormed the streets in celebration when his victory was announced, and this giddy optimism also permeated social media.
In the days after the election, there was an opening up of the national media, which has been steadily strangled over the past 8 years, as reporters and journalists tested the new waters to measure where the new limits of censorship have been set.
On July 23 the Iranian Students’ News Association announced Rouhani’s government may lift the filter from Facebook and other social networks, but after going viral, the article was deleted without explanation.
Iranians on social networks have started a campaign called “Rouhani, Mochakerim” [Rouhani, Thank You], a platform on which they seem to thank the new president for everything good in their everyday lives. One said, “I think Facebook needs to have a ‘Thank You Rouhani’ button” for Iranians”. Another quipped, “My phone’s had more battery life since Rouhani won the elections. Thanks Rouhani!”
Blogger Younes is very optimistic about Rouhani and hopes Iran’s relationship with other countries will be improved over the next four years. Younes described how Ahmadinejad’s foreign policies united the world against Iran. He pointed out that the invitations to Rouhani’s inauguration were sent to world leaders signalling that Iran is ready to change its position and open up dialogue with the outside.
Optimists aside, there are also those who are unsure whether Rouhani will be able to keep his promises. Twitter user thebrightriver has criticised Rouhani for the ministries he has proposed to the Parliament: “Rouhani has promised that he will create the Ministry for Women, but he hasn’t even chosen one woman as a minister! It’s good I didn’t vote otherwise I’d owe one to my conscience”.
Mohammad Hosseini Nejad argues Rouhani is not a magician, that radicalism is the biggest threat to his ability to fulfil his promises, and that his policies will only be implemented if all of the opposition factions join together to support him.
Rouhani’s victory has also created space for Iranians to publicly satirise Ahmadinejad. On Friday, Iranian Twitter users ridiculed Ahmadinejad’s government using the #AhmadiByeBye hashtag, and sent an invitation to social media users to attend Ahmadinejad’s Goodbye Party on Saturday, 3 August 2013.
Farzad said, “Ahmadinejad has claimed that he fought economic corruption, but everyone connected with him was involved in the biggest embezzlement in Iran’s history. #AhmadiByeBye” Hooman agreed, “These 8 years have shown me how just one mistake can destroy life of an entire generation. #AhmadiByeBye”.
While the atmosphere, at least on social media, is one of optimism, Rouhani’s road ahead is tough. For the next four years he will battle against the supreme leader and the Parliament to implement some of his more ambitious promises. Despite being a figurehead for Iran when it comes to the country’s public relations, the president has relatively limited power and will struggle to liberalise the country.
This article was reported by Bronwen Robertson and Amin Sabeti of Small Media. Small Media has collaborated with the Munk School on launching ‘Rouhani Meter’, where Rouhani’s policies will be tracked across the first 100 days of his candidacy and beyond.