Bahai News - With Mixed Feelings, Iran Tiptoes to the Internet
October 8, 1996
With Mixed Feelings, Iran Tiptoes to the Internet
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
TEHRAN, Iran -- In a special office where Iranian computer experts are
devising just how much access their compatriots should have to the Internet,
English words scrawled in felt pen fill a large white bulletin board across
A dense green line running down the middle of the board is marked
"Firewall," and the first entry on the banished side of the barricade reads
The Islamic Republic is in a quandary over just how extensive
its electronic links with the outside world should be. It is eager
to propagate its theocracy and become a source for questions of
Islamic law. But the government fears that everyone from die-hard
supporters of the deposed Shah to Western pornographers will storm
in via cyberspace.
"There is stuff on the Internet that people have access to that
is as offensive as 'The Satanic Verses' and it is updated every
day," Deputy Foreign Minister M. Javad Zarif said, referring to
the novel that prompted the Iranian government in 1989 to call for
the killing of its author, Salman Rushdie. "We believe a certain
level of decency must be provided."
The government's response to the spread of a similar phenomenon
-- satellite television -- was to ban satellite dishes outright last
year. Sobh, the monthly newspaper of the most puritanical clergy,
has called for a parallel ban on the Internet.
But parliament has yet to take up the issue, and the combination
of scientists and clerics seeking access, plus upgraded telephone
lines, means that those eager to be on line are likely to get there
Anticipating that day, the government is trying to centralize
all access through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.
Having screened thousands of sites on the World Wide Web and at
least started blocking those deemed unhealthy, the ministry is
Government officials said the number of banned sites was not
available, but they include those with information distributed by
opposition groups like the Mujahedeen Khalq, based in Iraq, or by
faiths that Iran abhors like the Bahai, as well as pornography and
any information seen as Western propaganda.
"The brains of the young are very impressionable, so the
Mujahedeen Khalq might be able to brainwash people to join them, or
they might be able to influence an election," said a senior
government official familiar with the Internet project.
Price remains a hurdle for most people. On-line Iranians said
the government treats internet use like long-distance phone calls,
with three or four hours a week billed at $50 to $130. One nightly
user said he ended up with a three-month telephone bill for
$70,000, which he bargained down to $20,000. And there are large
Outside the government, a few services have established Internet
links. For two years much of the Iranian university system has
depended on a trunk line established by the Institute for the Study
of Mathematics and Science to a sister institution in Austria. But
with an estimated 30,000 people having accounts and the line
limited to six people at once, getting through requires patience.
Users also said that the international telephone lines have
sometimes been severed because of a continuing feud with the
government over whether the universities will retain their
independent access once the Telecommunications Ministry system is
fully operational. Irnet, the only private operator, has set up a
domestic bulletin board service but has yet to get the
international access it seeks.
Tehran's energetic mayor, Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, also set up
a municipal bulletin board and an E-mail system that forwards
messages internationally, but exchanges are always delayed at least
Iranian students and professors are convinced that the degree of
government control means Big Brother is somehow out there watching.
Karbaschi denied that any messages were vetted, blaming the huge
backlog for lost exchanges.
"Maybe in the future we will have to open the curtain
surrounding Iran," the government Internet official said.
"Ultimately we know we can't control it mechanically -- that we
will have to control it spiritually."
The spiritual is one of the reasons Iran is so eager to get
connected to the Internet. It wants the world to start referring to
resources like the Center for Islamic Jurisprudence in Qum.
Researchers have computerized 2,000 texts of both Shiite and Sunni
law and hope eventually to expand it to 5,000.
The library now fields questions through the regular mail and
wants E-mail to increase the scope of users.
"We hope the information banks of Qum become available
throughout the world," said Ali Kourani, the clergyman running the
center. "I've heard Mr. Clinton complain about the values of the
young in America. This kind of criticism alone won't do any good.
The young have to have access to the sources of good morals."
One recent foray onto the Internet indicated that Iranian
students will peruse anything they can. A researcher unexpectedly
given unrestricted access to the Internet to demonstrate the system
to a visitor found a Web site marked Israel within minutes.
"I wonder what is on this," he said, passing the arrow back
and forth across the screen in momentary indecision before clicking
hard twice to whisk the information on screen. "What's the worst
they can do, execute me?"
©Copyright 1996, The New York Times Company
Page last updated/revised 033100
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