Israel and Iran: So Much in Common

Israel has much to learn from its adversary about controlling its citizens' social media habits, but it's going in the 'right' direction.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranians surf the web in an Internet cafe at a shopping center in central Tehran, Iran, 2013.
Iranians surf the web in an Internet cafe at a shopping center in central Tehran, Iran, 2013.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The two Palestinian men jailed by Israeli courts for incitement on Facebook should consider themselves fortunate. Sami Deis and Omar Shalabi’s situation is much better than that of Iranian civilians, who are completely forbidden from using Facebook or Twitter. At the same time, Israeli censors should not rest on their laurels: They still have lots to learn from the Iranians.

For example, the Iranian Communications Ministry has developed a special search engine, FarsiGo, through which users are unable to find any information that isn’t approved by the government. Those searching for terms like “Green revolution” or “Mir-Hossein Mousavi” – the former Iranian prime minister who led the 2009 protests – will find only results that denigrate the revolution or Mousavi.

According to reports in the Iranian press, the regime has allocated some $40 million in order to “carry out the government’s responsibilities with regard to the use of information technology.” That is the convoluted wording used by the Communications Ministry to describe the monitoring of Web users and “illegal” content.

One of the most recent victims of this policy is Baktash Abtin, a well-known poet and documentary filmmaker who in April was questioned for three straight days by the Intelligence Ministry about content he posted to Facebook. A leading member of the Iranian Writers’ Association, Abtin was ultimately charged, among other things, for using the association’s website to criticize the government’s harsh treatment of intellectuals. Another member, Reza Khandan, said his home was searched and he was questioned by agents for posting “propaganda against the state” on the association’s Facebook page, which in the meantime has been blocked.

On the other hand, it seems that Iranian Web users are rising to the challenge in light of the regime’s efforts to quash dissension on social media, and continue to find ways around the government’s blocks. For example, some 5 million Iranians began using the Telegram messenger app after they experienced difficulties with Viber, and around 70 percent of young Iranians use proxies in order to access blocked websites.

The Iranian government is well aware of its limitations in terms of regulating the Web or satellite feeds. Also, the law against installing satellite dishes on roofs in order to receive overseas broadcasts has become irrelevant. The state makes a show of taking down dishes from time to time. But there’s almost no building in Iran without one.

Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati could not be clearer when he explained to police officials last week that “the country’s borders, or its legal regulations, do not allow us to prevent the flow of information. In the past, we could control information by pressuring the heads of media companies. Today, the playing field has changed, and this method is no longer possible.”

Jannati explained that Iranian citizens are exposed to more than 4,500 satellite channels worldwide, and some 170 Persian-language television stations. “Over the next two or three years, any cellular device will be able to connect to 2,000+ satellite feeds, and there won’t be a need for satellite dishes at all.” The solution, he believes, is convincing Iranians to produce local cultural offerings that would compete with those coming from overseas.

Jannati is a fascinating politician. His father, Ahmad Jannati, heads Iran’s Guardian Council: he is a leading Iranian conservative and a close associate of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Jannati family fortune is estimated at about $250 million. But his family’s conservative values, it seems, did not stop the younger Jannati from adopting his own political and intellectual agenda, and advancing current President Hassan Rohani’s cultural agenda.

In this capacity, Jannati also bears the brunt of criticism from conservative religious and political figures, including his father, as well as conservative factions in parliament. Last February, he was asked to explain why he allowed an album by singer Noushin Tafi to be released. According to critics, the release violated the prohibition on solo female singers, instituted back in 1979. “It’s forbidden that female singing become normal. We will stop it,” said the council of religious sages, adding, “The Culture Minister is treading on religious values.” The minister promised that “the album will be reexamined by the appropriate parties.”

So, it turns out that the tendency to monitor “incitement” on Facebook is not all that Israel and Iran have in common – prohibitions on female singing is another shared interest. Perhaps this could be the starting point for a relationship based on shared values.

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