Editor's Note: FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch provides translated selections and analysis from a diverse range of foreign articles and other media that analysts and expert contributors believe will give military and security experts an added dimension to their critical thinking about the Operational Environment.
Source:“Pesakh-e hazarat-e Ayatollah Khamene‘i dar baraye estifadeh az facebook” (“Answer
of His Excellency Ayatollah Khamenei About the Use of Facebook,” Shafaqna.com. 29 April
Michael Rubin: The Islamic Republic has always had a love-hate approach to the internet. In the 1990s internet cafes sprung up across Tehran and in other major cities. Authorities were initially uncertain how to react. In early internet cafes, for example, the Intelligence Ministry simply paid managers and informants to look over shoulders and check browsing histories. The regime believed it could harness the power of the internet for its own purposes. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for example, maintained his own internet site to disseminate his speeches, writings, and fatwas, not only in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu, but also in Japanese, Bahasa Indonesian, Swahili, Hausa, and various European languages. Security services traditionally worried more about cell phones than social networking.
Ordinary Iranians, however, soon embraced the internet to reach out both to each other and the outside world. For a short time Persian became the thirdlargest blogging language after English and French, and it still places in the top ten. While President Mohammad Khatami preached “dialogue of civilizations,” regime hardliners increasingly worried about the mechanisms of that dialogue.
"Rejection of Facebook became a regime loyalty test, with some political leaders forced to deny ever having an account."
As Facebook became popular, it became a tool not only for social networking but also for political discussion. On May 23, 2009, three weeks before Iran’s disputed presidential elections, the Iranian judiciary banned Facebook after Iranians began using the internet site to discuss that country’s presidential debates. In the wake of the uprising, Facebook was a prominent component of forced confessions, with the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary courts accusing the United States of using Facebook to sow sedition. Rejection of Facebook became a regime loyalty test, with some political leaders forced to deny ever having an account, while the Intelligence Ministry used accusations of Facebook activity to delegitimize Ahmadinejad’s election rivals. The Revolutionary Guards’ weekly newspaper depicted both Facebook and Twitter as “instruments of the enemy.” Despite the regime’s efforts to condemn and sometimes block Facebook, however, the paramilitary Basij claims that there are still 17 million Facebook users in the country.
It is against this backdrop that the Supreme Leader issues his fatwa. While Iranian authorities continue to develop a national Internet with the goal of disconnecting Iran from the global Internet, they are still at least three years away from accomplishing this goal (a goal which American engineers privately concede the Iranian regime can accomplish). Khamenei’s declaration that Facebook can be used for good or bad in the meantime effectively suspends the broad crackdown on social networking, most likely because the regime has been unable to dissuade or prevent Iranians from using social networking sites. Khamenei’s statement does, however, leave the door open to continued regime monitoring and perhaps selective targeting of student leaders and reformist politicians.
Michael Rubin is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.