Last night, Iranians discovered they could be like their Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif (above), and use Twitter freely...if briefly. (Image Source: Reuters)
Late Monday evening, Iranians had a bit of surprise for them: Twitter and Facebook were suddenly available to people wherever they were in Iran. For a period of a few hours, Iranians were able to tweet and post status updates on Facebook, probably discovering what a wasteland both social networks had become. However, the Iranian government eventually re-blocked Facebook and Twitter, citing "technical problems." The sudden technical problems were possibly a cover, though, and might be a show for what is a hidden struggle in Iranian politics between hardliners and pragmatists in the government.
Okay people the rumors are true, this is my first tweet ever using Iran's state cell phone internet service without VPN!!!— Thomas Erdbrink (@ThomasErdbrink) September 16, 2013
Iran's blocking of Twitter and Facebook dates back to summer of 2009, for reasons that are obvious for that time period. Following the presidential elections that year, widespread protests occurred on the belief that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his paramilitary Revolutionary Guards deliberately rigged the election in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reform candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kerroubi. For a time, the Green Movement, the umbrella group of protesters against the regime, used Facebook and Twitter to get word out of the violent suppression of protesters by Revolutionary Guards and their street militia, the Basij. Eventually the Iranian regime wizened up and blocked Twitter and Facebook from the Iranian public, making it only accessible to those who could use special means to get around the firewall.
In recent months, following the presidential election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, there seems to be a slow opening of sorts happening in Iran in regards to Twitter and Facebook. Prominent Iranian leaders, including President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have taken to Twitter, writing tweets in English and Farsi on a variety of subjects, including a somewhat-surprising greeting of Rosh Hashannah to the remaining Iranian Jews.
This has led many to suspect that the "glitch" that occurred last night was actual in-fighting on the committee responsible for handling Iran's internet. The divide between the hardliners who are more closely aligned with the clerical regime, and moderates and pragmatic conservatives who wish to open the nation is blatantly shown here. However, analysis indicates that this loss of a block may have indeed been technical: According to some security experts, many other sites, including illegal porn sites, were also available to Iranians.
A plausible explanation could be this: Some figures that handled the Internet filter disabled the specific block that kept Iranians from accessing Twitter and Facebook for the express purpose of releasing the filter on those two sites. However, because the filter was also keeping blocked several other sites that the regime is far more intent on blocking, the release of the block was botched, thus causing the reversal and using the excuse of "technical problems" to handle the bungling.
Regardless of whether or not there was a glitch last night, it comes as the Iranian government are making moves to open up its regime and attempt to lift sanctions against Iran's economy and government for its continued nuclear power developments. President Rouhani is looking to present a new initiative to restart nuclear talks that might pave the way for bilateral relations, coming after the United States and Russia agreed to force Iranian ally Syria's hand on its chemical weapons stockpile rather than take military action. Meanwhile, 2009 presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as Mousavi's wife Zahra Rahnavard, remain under house arrest, following attempts to protest during the Arab Spring of 2011.