Iranians almost get Facebook again

Hopes were raised of a further thaw in Iran when the New York Times reported yesterday that Facebook and Twitter had again become available to Iranian internet users, after being blocked by the government since 2009.

Liberalisation of censorship was one of the key promises made prior to his election by new president Hassan Rouhani. And the move won immediate approval; the Times reports that the country’s internet users “reacted to the apparent unblocking on Monday as if a digital Berlin Wall had just crumbled on their computer screens.”

Alas, control was quickly reimposed. The head of the relevant government committee said (according to Al-Jazeera) that the unexpected access was “apparently due to technical problems” and was being investigated. Iranians have had to go back to using proxy servers and other methods to get around the ban.

But it may not be as simple as that. An Iranian IT administrator quoted by Al-Jazeera suggested that the move might have been an experiment on the government’s part: “They are testing what will happen if they remove the filter, and whether they can control the situation or not.”

The basic fact about Iranian politics is that the president does not really control the government. Any genuine move to liberalisation would require Rouhani to somehow convince or circumvent conservatives who are loyal not to him but to theocratic leader Ali Khamenei. So it would make a certain amount of sense for him to set up some sort of “accident” like this to demonstrate that it’s possible to relax censorship without putting the state in jeopardy.

Even if nothing further comes of it, the move might at least remind the liberally-minded Iranians who delivered Rouhani victory that he is doing his best for them in difficult circumstances.

But satisfying the demands of domestic liberals is only a relatively small part of Rouhani’s task. Much more important is the need to do something about Iran’s economic problems, and that in turn is going to require some degree of progress with the west to obtain a loosening of sanctions, imposed as a result of fears about the Iranian nuclear program.

Der Spiegel this week reports that Rouhani is willing to shut down the most controversial of Iran’s nuclear installations in return for the end of sanctions. The magazine suggests that he may outline the offer in an address to the UN General Assembly later this month. (Hat tip to my Crikey colleague Richard Farmer for the story.)

Last week’s deal to neutralise Syria’s chemical weapons might have helped to create some momentum for an agreement with Iran. There will still be domestic political obstacles for Rouhani, in the shape of hardliners who are opposed to making any concessions – and on this issue there will be the same sort of obstacles in the west as well, as Barack Obama’s political opponents stand ready to denounce any sign of weakness.

But the two sides’ positions are not fundamentally incompatible, and the nuclear issue is so important that this time there just might be enough political will for something to get done. And if it does, the Iranian foreign minister will be able to use his Facebook page to announce the news.

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