Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2004

Hossein Derakhshan on how the internet has changed Iran

Andre Mayer

Hossein DerakhashanWith his friendly countenance, placid voice and unerring kindness, the last thing you’d expect Hossein Derakhshan to be is an agitator. But put him in front of a web-enabled laptop, and this mild-mannered fellow becomes a political pitbull. A former Tehran journalist, Derakhshan is a blunt critic of Iran’s theocratic regime, which stifles liberalism and tries to smother dissent. Since publishing a Persian guide on how to build a weblog, he has been credited with politicizing a generation of Iranian youths—and drawing the ire of the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Cognizant of the risk of continuing his countercultural activities, Derakhshan and his wife, Marjan, moved to Canada in 2000. But he didn’t give up his activism; he merely intensified it. From his condo in downtown Toronto, Derakhshan operates Editor: Myself, a bilingual weblog (English and Persian) that advocates Iranian democracy and acts as a locus for the Persian diaspora.

How big is the internet in Iran?

There are more than three million internet users out of a population of 70 million, which is not bad. They’re mainly students and middle- and upper-class. The access is now much easier than it was six, seven years ago. For the past five years, there are different ISPs, private ISPs, and they have calling cards that they sell. Ten hours of internet access is 10 bucks. It provides people with anonymity, because that’s a big thing for internet users in Iran. And it gives them an option not to stick with one ISP; if the service goes down and anything happens, they can change to another ISP. But recently there have been regulations passed, both in government and the judiciary, that want to limit this anonymous access through these cards. This is a very important development, and it could harm the increasing number of internet users in Iran.

Is it fair to say that the government sees the internet as a threat?

The government is good toward the internet. It’s not controlling it. It’s helped to develop the infrastructure and they’ve allowed private ISPs to operate. But there is another part of the regime, which is more powerful than the government. The leader himself and security organizations have been trying to shut down the internet or, as much as they can, prevent people from accessing the political opposition websites or anti-religious websites.

How bad is web censorship?

Since [May], it’s stepped up very, very heavily. You can say that almost every popular website, whether it’s political or entertainment, has been filtered and has lost almost half of its users. Several years ago, on July 9, there was a student protest. Every year, on the anniversary of that day, [the regime] gets paranoid. They always think that the CIA or [Israel’s intelligence service] Mossad is conspiring against them. On the eve of this day, or one month before that, they start to shut down everything, to effectively disconnect Iranians inside from the outside world.

Does the Iranian regime consider you a public enemy?

Unfortunately, yes. That’s why I can’t go back. I mean, I can go back, but it’s risky. One of my friends was arrested—he was a blogger and journalist—and now he’s in Holland, because he escaped after he was held for 20 days. We have had phone conversations, and he said they were interested to know about his relationship with me, and the part that I’ve been playing in promoting these weblogs, who’s supporting me, what kind of family I come from. It wasn’t good news for [the regime] when they heard that my family was very religious. For example, my uncle was among the top officials. In the beginning of the revolution, he was killed in a bombing. He was very close to the party of the current leader, the hardliners. When they heard that I came from that kind of family, they were disappointed, but still very suspicious. They can’t believe that one person with his laptop can still start this whole thing.

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