On Nowruz, President Obama Speaks to the Iranian People

In a video message earlier today, President Obama sent his best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz.

Nowruz is a time when so many Iranian families and loved ones come together in celebration. Moreover, it is a holiday that reminds us of the rich culture of the Iranian people, and the extraordinary contributions that they have made to human history. Yet even as holidays like this underscore the connections that we share as human beings, the Government of Iran is going to great lengths to isolate the Iranian people by cutting them off from the outside world. 

For far too long, the Iranian regime has tried to control the flow of information and ideas to and from the Iranian people and the outside world.  As people everywhere are making their voices heard through new technologies and social media, the people of Iran often find their voices stifled and their ability to connect denied. Like the Iron Curtain of the 20th century, an Electronic Curtain is descending as the Iranian regime attempts to control what its citizens see and hear. 

The Iranian people have a universal right to access information, and to freely assemble online. Yet the Iranian regime increasingly denies these rights, and uses technology to suppress its people. Reporters Without Borders named Iran an “Internet Enemy” for 2011, and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists calls Iran one of the world’s “Ten Online Oppressors.” Below are just some of the many ways Iran’s government has earned these titles. 

Controlling the Internet:

As more citizens use the Internet as a source for news and political debate, the government has responded by:   

  • Monitoring and filtering Internet content: Iran routinely blocks access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites, blog platforms, photo or video-exchange websites, and other sites related to politics and human rights. Recent reports indicate that Iran has blocked over 5 million websites, to include frequently accessed sites such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Skype, stifling the ability for millions to interact with those inside and outside of Iran. 
  • Limiting Access: Through a 2006 law, Iranians have limited access to broadband Internet, and internet speeds are further slowed during  times for heightened public discourse, to include elections, planned protests, or other major national events that might lead to public assembly. 
  • Suspending Access to the Internet: During the past year, the government has announced its intention to create a “National Intranet” to better control and monitor the  flow of information. To prevent Iranian citizens from accessing content outside the country, Iran took the draconian step of blocking the most common form of secure connection (SSL)  used by millions of web services and businesses — preventing an estimated 30 million Iranians from using e-mail or Skype to connect to the outside world.

Creating a Culture of Fear:

 Through threatening  tactics and harsh laws, Iran’s government has created a culture of fear among Internet users that causes them to self-censor or to avoid using the internet altogether.  Recent examples include: 

  • Scare Tactics: Regime elements have created a so-called “Cyber Army” of up to 15,000 internet “enforcers.”  In August 2011, the Iranian Cyber Army created a fake email certificate authority, exposing the personal details of more than 400,000 email account holders. NGOs report that authorities occasionally stopped arriving citizens at the Tehran International Airport and asked them to log into their YouTube and Facebook accounts, sometimes forcing them to delete information. 
  • Legal Measures: The Cyber Crime Act of 2009 allows the government to prosecute Iranians for crimes such as disseminating information likely to agitate the public and insulting the Supreme Leader. Laws are arbitrarily applied based on enforcers’ interests. 
  • Spying in Internet Cafes: According to reports, Internet cafes are required to record the personal information for each user as well as the date, time, IP address, and addresses of websites visited. 
  • Tracking and Targeting: Reports also suggest that security services are becoming more adept at using citizens’ own technology against them, tracking opposition figures for harassment and abuse. Iranians are increasingly concerned that using devices to connect to one another will expose themselves and their associates to retribution by the government. 

Persecuting Foreign Broadcasters

Iran engages in a systemic campaign to prevent news, entertainment, and opinions from reaching media that is not subject to Iranian government control.  This includes: 

  • Jamming: Iran jams or interferes with foreign broadcasts from around the world, misusing satellite equipment to simultaneously block dozens of channels on international satellites.  Recently, Iran helped Syria jam Al-Jazeera’s coverage of protests and the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown. Ironically, Iran uses the same satellites and frequencies to broadcast its own news and ideology worldwide, in more than 10 languages and on more than 25 channels. 
  • Outlawing foreign information: The Iranian regime outlawed the ownership of satellite dishes, criminalizing owners of even these most basic information tools. Furthermore, Iranians simply trying to submit questions or send information to foreign broadcasters by SMS messages receive a menacing auto-text back from the Iranian government threatening them with imprisonment. 
  • Intimidation: Most recently, Iran arrested and harassed the family member of a reporter associated with BBC’s Persian Service and has continued to harass other Iranians supposedly linked to BBC. However, authorities also harass and threaten advertisers on satellite channels broadcasting into Iran, and they routinely imprison journalists, bloggers and free speech advocates. Saeed Malekpour, a web programmer, along with at least two other Iranian “net-izens,” currently sits on death row on trumped-up charges. 

Steps to Counter the Electronic Curtain

President Obama remains committed to engagement with the people of Iran that is rooted in mutual respect. As he said in his video message, Americans are deeply grateful for the contributions of so many Iranian-Americans to our own country, and we have benefited greatly from our interactions with Iranian culture. Recently , this Administration took an important step in reaching out to the Iranian people – despite the objections of the Iranian Government—by launching an online “Virtual Embassy,” which brings Iranians information they cannot access from their own government-controlled media, ranging from world news to facts on U.S. policy and culture.  

Today we are taking another step, by making it easier for Iranian citizens to get the software and services they need to connect with the rest of the world through modern communications methods. The U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) today issued guidance that will facilitate the availability of software and services that Iranians have told us are essential in order to effectively use the Internet. 

This builds on a step taken two years ago to authorize exports from the United States or by U.S. persons to persons in Iran of services and software related to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, including web browsing, blogging, email, instant messaging, and chat; social networking; and photo and movie sharing. The guidance issued today clarifies that certain categories of services and software, including personal data storage, browsers/updates, plug-ins, document readers, free mobile apps, RSS feed readers and aggregators, are currently covered by the previous OFAC authorization, and new guidance has been issued to encourage applications from companies that provide software and services that would enhance Iranians’ access to and safety on the Internet. We encourage American companies to make their software and communications tools available to the people of Iran to help bring greater access to the world’s knowledge and information, and to empower Iranians with the tools to make their voices heard.  

As President Obama said in his video message, the United States will continue to draw attention to the Electronic Curtain that is cutting the Iranian people off from the world. We encourage all who support the universal rights of the Iranian people to join us.

Learn more:
     Read the blog post in Persian
     Read the fact sheet in Persian

Ben Rhodes is Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting
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