Postcard from Iran

My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:

The Islamic Republic of Iran operates in a completely different universe.

Most Iranians are… utterly removed from Western stereotypes – the vast majority I have met are opposed to the authoritarian rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his recent attempts to crackdown on all forms of opposition.

That said, their view of Washington and its intentions are uniformly negative… — a variety of journalists, editors and bloggers are openly fearful of a US strike on their country’s nuclear facilities. As leading female journalist and blogger Azadeh Akbari… told me, “how can we trust anything America says when we see what they’ve done to Iraq and Palestine?”

Over the weekend I spoke to the country’s former Vice President in Parliamentary Legal Affairs under previous President Khatami, Mohammed Ali Abtahi.

A leading reformist blogger, he said that although the country’s current problems with the West were highly unfortunate, there was a public mood for more moderate leadership, while still maintaining strong Islamic traditions.

Not that you’d get this impression watching state-run television or reading government-owned newspapers, where the United States and the “illegitimate Zionist regime” of Israel are blamed for every conceivable problem in the region. Although such labeling is tiresome, it underlines the paranoid nature of the hardliners. Any foreigner is a potential spy (the recent arrests of various Iranian-Americans on spurious charges highlights this position).

One of the most intriguing aspects of contemporary Iran is the way in which the internet is filtered. For example, type “Dick Cheney” or “Hitchcock” into a Google search engine and the sites will be blocked simply because the words “c-ck” and “d-ck” are suspect.*

Likewise with a host of other s-x-related words. But the censorship is not consistent. The vast majority of Australian news-sites are unavailable (especially the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian) but the Israeli press in English is viewable.

Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, blogger… and urbane editor of the country’s largest youth magazine, Chelcheragh, said that trying to impose logic on a random system was pointless. The increased involvement of Western multinationals in the filtering process – Swedish masters student Jonathan Lundqvist has done some fine research on this growing business… — adds a global level to this insidious practice. OpenNet Initiative… has also studied the ways in which many countries around the world are now viewing the internet as a threat to their undemocratic rule.

Like countries where I’ve recently conducted similar research on net censorship and controlling dissent such as Egypt and Cuba, the Islamic Republic of Iran strikes me as acting in a predictably schizophrenic way. On the one hand, wanting to embrace the new technology to propagate its message – the mullahs here are highly sophisticated at both training young bloggers and highlighting their writings in the conservative press – yet also suspicious of ever-growing Western influences in film, music, fashion and social-networking sites (MySpace and Facebook are blocked, though friends here tell me that it’s easy to find proxies to get around the problem.)

*CRIKEY: Yes,… we understand the irony here. Though we’d love to write c-ck and d-ck in full, Crikey is too often knocked back by over-zealous spam filters (hence the hyphenation). They’re not, however, as far as we know, controlled by the government — yet.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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