April 5, 2016
INS – Last Friday, IranWire published an article on the threat posed to free speech and civil rights by the theoretical Iranian National Internet, or halalnet. The report referenced and elaborated upon an article that had previously appeared at the website for the human rights group Article 19. Both sources emphasized that the Iranian regime is serious about closing off the Iranian internet from the rest of the world, and that this would be a globally significant step in the curtailment of free speech.
But IranWire was more circumspect about the actual impact that the halalnet was likely to have, given that Iran is already the country with the second most restrictions on the internet after China, that Iranian citizens nonetheless circumvent many of the existing restrictions, and that the isolation of the Iranian internet could interfere in the use of global systems by Iranian businesses, causing a backlash not only from the population as a whole but also from socially and financially prominent individuals.
However, the threat of the National Internet project is arguably not only practical but also symbolic. That is, the substantial investment – at least 285 million dollars in 2015 alone – that the Iranian government has put into tightening the reigns on its internet infrastructure is indicative of a larger project of attempting to isolate Iran from the outside world and reassert an Iranian identity that is strictly controlled by the clerical regime.
Some Western observers have been hopeful that last summer’s nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic would result in a cultural opening between it and the wider world, spearheaded by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who saw the nuclear deal through and who had previously promised reforms in a number of domestic areas.
But no noticeably progress has been made toward these reforms in more than two and a half years, and an expansion of anti-Western rhetoric from the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has helped to drive home the point that the regime as a whole is clamping down on the perception of reconciliation in any areas outside of the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The Iranian resistance group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran led protests in Vienna last week which were meant to coincide with a visit by President Rouhani to Austria. But the Iranian government cancelled that trip over Vienna’s refusal to cancel the protests, which focused on Rouhani’s human rights record, lack of credentials as a “moderate,” and inability or unwillingness to institute domestic reforms during his time in office.
Indeed, many of the criticisms that had been levied against Iran’s domestic rhetoric during the eight-year tenure of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remain in full force to this day, even as the associated abuses receive fewer rhetorical boosts from the Rouhani administration.
This phenomenon was discussed in another IranWire article on Monday. As the article indicates, although Rouhani has avoided the same sorts of provocative statements as his predecessor, the regime’s policies and practices remain fundamentally unchanged. Homosexuals remain subject to the same institutional discrimination, sometimes leading to unnecessary medical procedures. Those who do not embrace such radical “solutions” can still be subject to the death penalty.
Discrimination against other minority groups remains in full effect, as well, and new examples of its implementation emerge regularly from human rights groups and the general mediaFor example, on Friday an Iranian human rights group reported upon the arrest and educational disenfranchisement of another member of the Baha’i religious community. This came only days after reports detailing how Baha’i parents had been jailed without advanced notice, leaving their five year-old child without a caregiver.
The more recent story concerns Rouhie Safajoo, a young student who was arrested in early March in a raid upon her family’s home because she had posted to social media with an account of how she was being barred from entering Iranian universities, in line with the regime’s regular disenfranchisement of Baha’is.
The parents who had been sent to serve overlapping sentences without regard for their small child had been charged with acting against national security by providing instruction through an unofficial university attended by Baha’i students who had had their university entrance exam results withheld because of their religious identity.
These and other pressures on the Baha’i community are generally understood to be aimed at compelling them to either convert or emigrate. In other words, institutional discrimination serves to defend a strict Islamic cultural identity, much as the isolation of the Iranian internet would ostensibly prevent Iranians from being exposed to culturally undesirable information and influences.
However, this sort of information often comes from fully Iranian, Muslim sources as well, especially in the form of human rights activism by prominent citizens. And these cases are generally dealt with just as harshly, as indicated by a recent “Urgent Action” notice by Amnesty International concerning the renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Narges Mohammadi.
Mohammadi is not only being held as a prisoner of conscience for her human rights activism; she has also been ordered to return to prison and stand trial on April 20 against the advice of doctors, who insist that she is in need of specialized medical treatment for her deteriorating health conditions, including a pulmonary embolism and a neurological disorder that has caused several seizures.
Far from heeding this advice, the Iranian judiciary has moved to bring her up on new charges as punishment for having written an open letter detailing her mistreatment during the time when she had been transferred from her prison cell to a hospital.
It can be anticipated that the establishment of the Iranian National Internet might slow down such critical communications regarding the domestic situation. But wherever this is ineffective, various political prisoners’ cases speak to the types of traditional repression that are used against the same sorts of criticism.