Sites of War–The State and New Media in the Islamic Republic of Iran

By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

Berkeley–Note:  your correspondent is most concerned over the Iranian conundrum, therefore there is quite a lot of analysis in this article by your writer; therefore, he has put his own thoughts in parenthesis so as not to confuse them with Dr. Akhavan, the Iranian-American Professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz’, research as expressed in her book, The Iranian Internet:  Interventions in New Media and Old Politics.  Her broader investigations – besides new media – include transnational political and cultural production; international cinema and national identity; state sponsored and oppositional propaganda; documentary and social change; post-colonial and critical theory; Iranian cultural studies, etc.

(During this current crisis between Iran and Israel very little has been written from inside Iran.  The emphasis in the North American, European and Israeli press because of the isolation placed upon their State there has been the other actors in the quandary.  This isolation of Persia by the Occident since the 1979 “Revolt” has caused many misunderstandings – especially and most poignantly the current nuclear predicament. )  Ms. Niki Akhavan has access to Iranian civil society, and knowledge of the political structure of her ancestral land.

(Although Tehran, as the capital of the Farsi Republic, has little chance of being infected by the discontent of the Arab Revolts [“Spring”] even though that nation has a majority of young people and, at the “grass roots,” is very progressive and modern.)

Your author was able to able to hear her presentation on her book on new media in Iran and asked questions on the relationship to the hostile militarized cyber-attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel earlier this year.  

Both opponents and critics have long turned to various media to challenge the Iranian State; the nation itself has been consistent in turn deploying the same forms of media to expand its political power.  Her researches have examined the Mede’s use of media to control, manufacture and memorialize their moments of national crises.  These digital highlights have impacted that State’s strategies for asserting dominance and confronting its perceived cultural and political enemies.  This media, instead of becoming a weapon for liberalization (as with their Arab neighbors), had been used against potential reformers, and it has guaranteed the continuance of the status quo.

Traditionally, Iran has been a cultural producer (– especially to the non-Arab Islamic nations to the north and east of its boundaries.  In fact Iranian language and cultural norms had the same impact in Central and South Asia as France did in the Eighteenth through the first half of the Twentieth Centuries over Continental Europe). 

As with its Arab neighbors, the Median Center found itself off guard with recent external events.  The government’s “knee-jerk” reaction to the new (especially social) media was to attempt to repress it.  Tehran had the advantage in contesting the critical media in this “cultural war” in that it was overwhelmingly internal (i.e., within its own borders).  While the opponents are individuals participating in the blogosphere, but ultimately the State there as a collective entity had control of the means of (information) production in this “Soft War.” The Shia State was able to institute both repression of their opponents and propaganda to their supporters and citizens some of whom were neutral or were undecided on the issues.  In short, their establishment has been able to mobilize the net (e.g. the web) for crisis control.  (This is one of the reasons the Israeli dream of regime change over the ancient Aryan [i.e., Iranian]  landscape is ludicrous!)  Unfortunately, (because of the hostile isolation to contemporary theocratic Iran), the Supreme council feels these blogs have to be blocked; (thus, preventing an open discussion that could lead to positive political revision within the framework of an Islamic nation.)

(States like Cuba and Iran, who are accused of suppressive tactics, are forced to do so from the external pressure put upon them by the Imperial powers to overwhelm their inherent political processes to amend and reform [socially advance].  After the demise of the Second World changes were made for the better in much of Eastern Europe.  Isolation only drives nations inward and prevents them from interaction with the rest of the world leading to mischance and misunderstanding.)  

Consequently, the Persian State has co-opted (oppositional) blog content.  Accordingly, the Ayatollah’s have interjected them into the blogosphere itself; and, thus, contesting their cyber dissidents.  (This is a very different environment and reaction to what happened in the Arab Revolts [“Spring”], and shows that a political slide towards “bourgeois” democracy cannot happen as long as Iran is unfairly treated as a “rogue” State.) The Ministry in charge classifies the blogs as political or social, and categorized as critical or reformist.  The bureaucracy says that the blogosphere is in stagnation.  Yet as the administration’s process has proceeded, the blogs have grown easier to produce.  (Subtle) State support of certain (private) blogs gave them an advantageous voice.  Web sites online often had a dual (secret) purpose.

The blogosphere came to prominence during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s with governmental sponsored “martyr” sites.  The Iran-Iraq themed sites were largely secular and cultural.  “The government-sponsored sites were hosted by their own (State-run) servers.”

Curiously as it developed after the 80s, YouTube was utilized to disseminate the positions of both the admins and its opponents.  Here the religious-based country had to develop a totally new relationship to (secular) social media.  Also, the theocracy was the first major demesne to block the cyber rants of its own citizenry if it considered them obnoxious to its national survival.  Although social networking sites were selectively permitted if they met the morality of Shi’ite Islam as interpreted by the Iranian Ayatollahs, there was/is a strong muffling block to the websites that are not considered within their pale of propriety.

In 2009 (because of the possibility of a war that hopefully has been averted this year but is still looming in theory), a condition of possible catastrophe was declared.  Yet, social media had found a foothold within the expanse of the land.  (In one sense, though, Iran’s chief rival, Israel, has manipulated the (Shia) Islamic Republic’s domestic “Soft” War through malware [destructive software] to temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment program for about ten days, and, incidentally severely damaged the infrastructure of the enterprise [big business] worldwide.) Dr. Akhavan asks:  What is “Soft War?”  The national Metropolis sees the dangers of the new media; so, they react by trying to co-opt the phenomenon.  The knowledge to produce software is “Soft War.”  “The differences between conducting and combating ’Soft War’ are illusive.”  Often a militarized diction is employed to describe indication. 

In post-Revolutionary Iran, “Soft War” has recently entered into the space of Hard War.    Cyber Wars and “Soft Wars” are different but related as we saw in Tel Aviv’ attack upon Qum during the Arab Revolts (“Spring”).   (The former was employing Cyber while the latter [largely civil society] was reverting to a “Soft War” which was largely non-violent.   Israel was violently attacking Iran militarily through the Internet.)  In Persia today “It is an army of youths who are operating as ‘Soft’ Warriors’.”  On the other hand, “Social media is a double-edged sword” because it can become a weapon for both sides.”

As long, as both the West and Israel enforce a hostile blockade against that Islamic Republic, the establishment there will assume an imminent attack as reality.  (Fortunately, the most recent talks with the P-5 [confessed nuclear powers] plus one [Germany] has shown hope in bridging the conundrum.  It has been Berlin’s offer to exchange Iran’s near-weapon grade uranium for medical isotopes which, if accepted, would suspend the blockade.  One point to be negotiated is Iran retaining one of its uranium enriching facilities in a de-activated mode, but not to destroy it in case Israel rattles their swords again.  With the grave danger of the Hebrew nuclear program this is not an unreasonable condition for compromise.)


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