October 8, 1996
With Mixed Feelings, Iran Tiptoes to the Internet
By NEIL MacFARQUHARTEHRAN, 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 one wall.
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 "Playboy.com."
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 soon.
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 expanding subscriptions.
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 initiation fees.
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 24 hours.
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