Behind and Beyond the Electronic Curtain: Reactions to President Obama’s Norouz Message-Yassmin Manauchehri
"Because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran -- a barrier that stops the free flow of information and ideas into the country, and denies the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people, who have so much to offer."
President Obama has made it his tradition to congratulate the Iranian people on the arrival of spring and their New Year celebration of Norouz (new day). What made headlines in the Western media this year was his concern over the “Electronic Curtain” that continues to isolate Iranians from the rest of the world. The president also noted that although the United States has imposed sanctions on Iran, his administration is working to make it easier, providing new guidelines for US companies to provide software and services that would help Iranians access the Internet.
Following president Obama’s Norouz message came the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) new regulations, permitting US companies to export certain types of software to Iran. In light of Obama’s criticisms of the Iranian government and his promises to take steps to ease sanctions on electronics and software that impact internet use, the response from both Iranian government officials and news agencies to Obama’s greeting has been less pronounced compared to previous years.
It has become somewhat of a tradition for the semi-official Fars News Agency to analyze Obama’s yearly messages. This year’s Fars News opened with the strident headline, “An Analysis of Barack Obama’s Norouz Message: Recalling the success of Iranians living in America, or as he put it ‘Americans of Iranian descent,’ Obama congratulated the success of ‘A Separation,’ on behalf of US officials, for the umpteenth time.”
Fars News reported that according to Jam News and BBC Farsi, the president of the United States attempted, as usual, to create a rift between Iranians and their government by using Norouz as a wedge issue. The news agency continued by questioning Obama’s claim of Iran’s Internet censorship by stating that “he showed no evidence to back up his claims,” with the assertion that everyone in Iran is free and in contact with the rest of the world, therefore Obama must have been referring to sites affiliated with US intelligence and security sources, such as the US virtual embassy, which he was correct in characterizing as disconnected.
The article ended with the supposition that Obama’s message was softer in tone (referring possibly to Obama stating that there was “no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another”) this year since he has retreated from his position of aggression based on new intelligence that he has most likely received. Fars News boasts this claim without showing any signs of concern or responding in any way to Obama’s Internet outreach attempts through OFAC.
Iran’s Tabnak News Agency criticized Obama’s claims regarding the free flow of information in Iran when the US itself is attempting to limit Internet freedom through the PIPA and SOPA bills. The article also claims that the US is attempting to undermine the government by creating news through social media and news sites.
In an interview with the news site Mashable on the topic of digital outreach, Greg Sullivan, Senior Advisor for strategic communications on Iran at the US State Department stated, “We found online engagement to be a viable way to engage with Iranian citizens despite government limitations on Internet access.”
Iranians have become increasingly tech-savvy, using proxies and VPNs to bypass government filters that censor sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Gmail and Skype. All this is done knowing that the government routinely engages a cyber army to spy on user’s Internet behavior. Amidst the Iranian government’s efforts to create a “National Internet” that would cut off Iranian users from the rest of the world, the US administration has made it a priority to help take down the curtain with the newly introduced OFAC guidelines.
As of now neither the Iranian government officials nor the media have openly or directly commented on the announcements of relaxed sanctions on software promoting Internet freedom. It seems that for now at least, the elephant in the room is covered with a curtain of denial, electronic or otherwise.