The killing of the young Iranian woman Neda Agha Soltan in June 2009, captured on a mobile-phone and transmitted around cyberspace, became the human face of the Iranian’s opposition sacrifice after the stolen presidential election of that month. A basij militiaman shot 26-year-old Neda, an innocent passer-by amid the street-protests, at point-blank range. The Iranian establishment refused to take responsibility or acknowledge any wrongdoing.
But this establishment can’t even stick to a single story of denial. Since Neda’s death, the authorities have broadcast two official documentaries across Iran, depicting Neda respectively as a secret agent who staged her own death and an innocent bystander… murdered by Iran’s exiled opposition. More recently, Iran’s human-rights chief Mohammad-Javad Larijani has accused British intelligence agency MI6 of her assassination; and an announcement was made in the media that a major film about Neda was to be made.
The regime’s attempt to re-appropriate Neda Agha Soltan’s life and death has been contested all along the way by those who knew her and have come to identify with her - especially, amid stringent controls on many media outlets, in those parts of Iran’s cyberspace still free of censorship. The uproar there that greeted the news of the film even prompted the actress cast in the leading role, Leyla Otadi, to publicly deny any involvement in the project. “I wish I knew who had such enmity towards me, to put out news like this, making people so hysterical against me”, she said.
The brutal repression that pushed back the post-election street-protests and intimidated and imprisoned many “green” activists gave the internet and other new-media tools extra importance for an opposition seeking to voice its fury at violations of truth and rights. But impressive as such campaigns as the defence of Neda’s integrity are, these technologies have proved ambiguous in their use and effects.
For if they give the opposition in Iran a chance to be heard and to mobilise, they also equip the state with the power to monitor, track, disrupt, confuse and arrest critics. In the post-election security onslaught, for example, the personal computers of imprisoned activists were confiscated and their email correspondence used as material in endless hours of interrogation; the revolutionary courts cites the resulting “evidence” in handing lengthy prison sentences for “instigating war against God”.
The reductive tide
Farhad, an acquaintance of many years, is a student at Shiraz University. He describes how the regime’s cyber-assault has affected his behaviour: “I have a new email that I use purely for professional correspondence and I use a form of Skype. [In 2009] I couldn’t even imagine a day without checking out a news website like Balatarin, but today I just don’t...”
When I question Farhad about this apparent shift towards political apathy he quickly counters:
“Choosing not to be a laptop-commando does not make me indifferent. These days, most of the blogging commandos are either exiles or [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad fans. Even when I do circumvent various filters to get to something like Balatarin, I find it dominated by the two extremes - our own home-based club-wielding hardliners who are free to go anywhere and to shout as loud as they like, or our out-of-touch exiles. No one I know will call me religious, but I do have friends who even voted for Ahmadinejad, and I can differentiate between them and the government’s salaried henchmen. Those henchmen are as old as our culture and history; my fight is still to unite my peers in prohibiting them.”
Balatarin - a web 2.0 website in Persian - played a vital role in highlighting the often bloody aftermath of the elections, and it continues to offer insight into the variety of Iran’s cyberspace. But looking at some recent content I recognise the schism between dogmatisms that Farhad refers to: the familiar absolutist rhetoric of the Iranian state alongside the bigoted prejudices of marginal western neo-fascists against Islamic cultures. This cavernous polarity, this mind-crushing rhetoric, is so at odds with the lively blogosphere I was once familiar with.
But this is only the tip of a wider degradation of much political (including online) discourse. The sledgehammer verbal assaults of regime loyalists are the most visible aspect of this; from the view of Mohammad Ali Jafari of the Revolutionary Guards that Iran is in “a state of online soft-war” that is “more dangerous than a military confrontation” to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s call on "young soldiers" to confront those “spreading lies and rumours, doubt and divisions among the nation."
The state is heavily investing in this area of political combat. The majlis (parliament) has provided a $500 million budget for cyberwarfare; lavish “cyberwar" conferences are held that “reveal” the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami to be a “freemason”; emerging groups like the “Basij cyber committee” boast of training “1,500 active bloggers engaged in battle”. The online grandstanding can take ludicrous forms; the official Fars news agency claimed that an article on France 24.com about Ahmadinejad's speech at the United Nations general assembly in September 2010 reaped 2.2 billion reader comments - the true figure, France 24 pointed out, was thirty-one.
A growing band of well-staffed and funded news agencies spew out the archetypal worldview of a mighty nation conspired against by global Iran-obsessed enemies (one story even asserts that the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners was a Zionist conspiracy to undermine Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon).
The enemy within
Yet even a paranoid can have real enemies - and delights in conjuring more from its delusions. Three decades of sanctions and suspicion from the west have nurtured revolutionary Iran’s sense of siege. The regime uses every particle of hostility to blame any domestic problem or upheaval on foreign powers, the United States and Britain above all. It is skilled too in sustaining the alarmist message that internal enemies are in the pay of or serving the interests of these nefarious outsiders.
This is clear in the tightening security measures ahead of contentious government plans to phase out subsidies on energy, utilities and some basic food products. The national police chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam warns of the “drumbeats of economic sedition” represented by “civil disobedience, riot and chaos” - amounting to a western “conspiracy” reminiscent of the “flames of sedition in the aftermath of the election”.
The combat against this soft-war “conspiracy” is equally alert to offline threats. The Revolutionary Guard-affiliated website Jahan News reports the distribution of underground pamphlets - shab-namehShab-nameh (“night letters”, with the sense of samizdat) were widely used by Iran’s pro-democracy constitutionalists in the early 20th century as a tool of rebellion in their fight against a corrupt monarchy. Today, an “organised team” of “green subversives” in Isfahan is reported to be under arrest for distributing shab-nameh; while such pamphlets have appeared in college campuses around Iran. - against the removal of energy subsidies in provincial towns.
Another publication that the government targets is the bulletin Kalameh, originally a newspaper launched by opposition presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi days before the 2009 election in 2009 - and banned soon after. Today it has been revived in a two-page online format ready for printing and distribution, with even school-students among the recipients; a senior education-ministry official, Ali Asghar Yazdani, has raised concerns about its presence in secondary schools.
Moussavi addresses students in a recent edition of Kalameh as the nation’s “vigilant guardians”. He tells them that the government’s “terror over the free flow of information” reveals its view of all Iranians as complicit in the “conspiracy for its destruction" - and that this will prove its downfall.
The inside work
The establishment’s determined crushing of dissent finds enemies at every turn, even among the youngest Iranians. Yet this complex stage of rule and protest, dissent and apathy, polarisation and dead language, offers two important lessons.
First, the areas where Iran’s future are still argued over with any semblance of genuine engagement - whether vast cyberspace or a simple shab-nameh - are mere tools without intrinsic value. There is nothing in these tools that can definitively vindicate one side or the other, nothing published there that will provide the final blow. Everything, now, is double-edged.
Second, three decades after the revolution, Iran has become the only country in the middle east where people don’t have the luxury of blaming an American-backed leadership for the tyranny, corruption, mismanagement, waste and daily hardship that blights their lives. If there is one larger political truth in Iran today it is that the children of the 1979 revolution, in their non-violent fight for civil rights, are demanding that we Iranians should hold ourselves accountable for our failures and successes.
First published in www.opendemocracy.net.
Nasrin Alavi is the editor of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs.
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