By 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.
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
"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
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,
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.
Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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