Wall Street Journal: The Iranian government has launched a pre-emptive crackdown ahead of presidential elections next month, Iranians say, including disrupting the Internet, creating a cyber-surveillance unit for social media, arresting a prominent editor and canceling university classes. Recalling Chaos of 2009 Vote, Tehran Tries to Enforce Stability by Curtailing Internet, Spying on Users
By FARNAZ FASSIHI
The Iranian government has launched a pre-emptive crackdown ahead of presidential elections next month, Iranians say, including disrupting the Internet, creating a cyber-surveillance unit for social media, arresting a prominent editor and canceling university classes.
The coming election is the first presidential vote since the contested polls in 2009 ignited massive protests against the government and fraud allegations. This time around, amid international concern over Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s involvement helping Syria’s embattled regime to stay in power, Tehran is keen to present a united and stable front to protect its legitimacy.
“We are extremely worried. It looks like they are getting ready for communication lockdown,” said Hadi Ghaemei, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
As part of its effort to control the flow of information from Iran, the government has drastically slowed Internet speeds since Saturday, with users reporting difficulties accessing email. Proxy servers, antifiltering software and virtual private networks used by Iranians to circumvent government filtering of websites are no longer effective, users say.
Some banks and private corporations also reported interruption of services because of Internet problems, reported local newspaper Ghanoon. Most Internet cafes had to close this week, the newspaper says. “Only in Iran: Election comes and Internet goes,” the newspaper wrote on Tuesday.
The Internet crackdown, which the government has deployed during past protests, could be a trial run for unplugging the Internet during the June 14 election, human-rights groups say. It could also be a prelude for switching to the domestic intranet Iran has been building for the past two years, a strategy to cut World Wide Web access.
The Internet has become a primary tool for getting information out of Iran, with most activists and journalists preferring to use email, chat and Skype over telephone conversations, which are more easily monitored.
Iran’s head of Telecommunication and Information Agency, Ali Hakim Javadi, acknowledged the slow Internet but denied it was tied to the coming elections. In an interview with the official student news agency ISNA he attributed it to “other variables” including excessive number of websites using Iran’s IP address.
The Internet disruption coincides with a five-day registration period that started Tuesday for candidates to formally declare their intention to run for president. As of Wednesday, 144 candidates, including two women, had registered with the Interior Ministry, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.
Once registration is completed, a committee of conservative clerics called the Guardian Council will vet the nominees by examining their loyalty to the regime and Islam. A final list of approved candidates will be released May 23.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can’t run for a consecutive third term, but the question of who will succeed him and whether the elections will be fair have become hotly contested topics in Iran.
Mr. Ahmadinejad and his critics, mostly conservatives from rival factions, exchange attacks and counter accusations of financial corruption, fraud and mismanagement on a daily basis. Several senior clerics have warned that these spats will poison the election campaign and discourage the public from participating in large numbers.
On Sunday, Ali Ghazali, the editor of the widely read news website baztab.net, was arrested on charges of instigating public unrest and the website was taken offline. Baztab reported two weeks ago that it possessed a voice recording of Mr. Ahmadinejad admitting that his 2009 re-election was due to massive vote fraud.
Opposition leaders and former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been under house arrest for over two years. Other prominent reformers are in jail.
Last week, opposition websites reported that Iran’s intelligence ministry had summoned editors of local newspapers and websites to warn them against crossing “red lines” in their coverage of the elections. These red lines included suggesting vote fraud, low turnout or overanalyzing or interpreting comments by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the opposition websites.
Journalists working for foreign media organizations based in Tehran have also had their press credentials validated on a monthly basis until the election, rather than the customary annual accreditation, according to Iranian journalists and human rights organizations.
In mid-April, Iran announced the creation of a special election cyberunit called Fajr intended for surveillance of social-networking sites, namely Facebook FB +0.86% and Twitter. The unit is attached to security forces and will be on the lookout for any election-related social gatherings in public spaces like parks, according to Iranian official media reports.
“The police will begin surveillance of social-networking sites, satellite channels and all virtual activity in order to be completely alert during the elections,” said Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi, the deputy of police forces social unit in an interview with Iranian media last month.
Iranian media also reported that the Ministry of Education had issued a decree ordering nationwide suspension of university classes and final exams from approximately a week prior and post the election.
University campuses have always played an active role in Iranian politics staging protests, sit-ins and hosting debates. A student campaign blog dedicated to opposing the government’s decision to shut down colleges during elections said, “The University will be like an incarcerated lion, silent and fuming.”