UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
By Jason Motlagh
Washington, DC - Iran is already under attack. The opposition is at work both within and beyond its borders, restless, coordinating and sharing intelligence.
Its ranks number in the tens of thousands, most of whom are young and savvy with experience in clandestine activity. Their arsenal, however, includes neither guns nor grenades, but keyboards and flat-screen monitors.
In a country where free speech has price, Iranian bloggers are having a bonanza - and the hardliners have begun to take notice.
The blogging phenomenon has exploded in the Islamic Republic. Today an estimated 75,000 Iranians maintain online Web logs, or "blogs," for short, that engage in a brisk virtual dialogue despite an Orwellian government that has a monopoly on public news media. They are an ever-enlarging faction of the 5 million Internet users in Iran, who have taken the protest for greater social freedom from streets and newsstands to cyberspace.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, president of Washington-based Strategic Policy Consulting, said that in the absence of other mediums, "Iranian bloggers are testing the waters right now, gauging levels of tolerance to see just how far they can push the envelope."
A lopsided 70 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 30, with no memory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled Shah Reza Pahlavi and fading respect for the austere laws imposed during the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini.
At one level, the anonymity blogs provide has opened a conduit of free expression for legions of increasingly disaffected youth, long deprived access to music, fashion and other spoils of Western pop culture.
"Individuality, self-expression, tolerance are new values which are quite obvious through a quick study of the content of Persian Web logs," said Hossein Derakhshan, a Canadian-based Iranian journalist, in an interview with the BBC.
"The underground lives that Iranian youth have these days. Things like girlfriends, boyfriends, the music they listen to, the films they see."
A random survey of blogs showed that taboo topics, ranging from Valentine's Day celebrations to the assets of actress Angelina Jolie, are discussed in passionate detail.
This variety is itself a significant development in a closed society like Iran, where women are forbidden to expose their hair, let alone air their grievances against the ruling powers.
More notably, blogging has filled the media vacuum created by the forced closure of independent news outlets -- including 110 dailies and periodicals since April 2000 -- and breathed life into an ailing reform movement that has lost faith in President Mohammad Khatami's campaign promises to liberalize the country.
Reformists lost control of Parliament a year ago after conservative clerics declared most candidates ineligible to run for election, and voters skipped the polls. But the political debate raged on in the "blogosphere," the term used to describe the worldwide network of Web logs - from Tehran to Talahassee - and the hyperlinks that connect them.
Some observers say the gathering revolution will be blogged, not televised, in the country Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for press freedom, has called "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East."
In an age of over-produced, watered-down mass media, where war coverage has much in common with Monday night football, it would seem unlikely that blogs could become so popular. After all, the majority are diaries of unfiltered commentary beyond the pale of accountability.
And yet blogs have become the great equalizer in places like Iran, offering average citizens and upstart journalists the capacity to receive and make news in real time.
"Iranian society is very dynamic, with a literary tradition valued for centuries," said one prominent civil society activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Blogs have enabled the opposition to express themselves and buy into those values."
Additionally, many intellectuals and government officials now rely on blogs to employ a higher degree of nuance and expertise in their political commentaries. They include Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president of Iran turned parliamentarian, who has started his own Web log, neveshteha.com.
Abtahi, who now serves as President Khatami's personal adviser, claims to have started his blog to personally address widespread apathy among Iranian youth with the slow pace of reform. Empty gesture or not, it has quickly become one of the country's most popular blogs, which should come as no surprise in a blog-happy country like Iran.
At a recent U.N. summit, Khatami himself bragged that Iran's official language, Farsi, stands as the third most popular blogging tongue in the world -- a remarkable statistic considering there are but 75 million native speakers, compared with 1.2 billion Chinese and 400 million Spanish speakers.
Once Derakhshan, the de facto father of Iranian blogging, devised a how-to-blog guide in Farsi that kicked open the door, blogs enabled Iranians to voice their opinions without fear of abuse by state-backed thugs. For the most part, critics of the regime could safely gauge the views of fellow citizens on key reform issues and mobilize collective support for opposition events and protests.
"Web logs are much used at times of crisis (in Iran), such as during the June 2003 student demonstrations, when they were the main source of news about the protests and helped students to rally and organize," according to Reporters Without Borders.
This was a far cry from challenges of the Islamic Revolution 25 years ago, in which participants had to resort to person-to-person contact at risk of being caught by state police and thrown into prison, or worse, disappearing altogether.
Unfortunately, bloggers are no longer out of reach.
The sudden arrest of online journalist Sina Motallebi in 2003 confirmed the mullahs have wised up. Motallebi, the first blogger ever imprisoned by a government, was charged with "undermining national security through artistic activity."
A petition circulated around an international network of bloggers attracted enough media coverage to bring about his release 23 days later.
"In terms of bloggers coming together to protect human rights issues, this raised awareness very effectively," the anonymous activist said, adding that a spate of bloggers have suffered the same fate as Motallebi as Iran jockeys for position in the anti-Internet axis alongside countries like China, North Korea and Cuba.
"Through arrests and intimidation, the Iranian authorities are now trying to spread terror among online journalists," Reporters Without Borders said on their Web site.
Tehran has harshly cracked down on the online press as of late. Nearly 20 people have been arrested over the past three months, and two Web journalists, Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad, remain in prison.
In January, Iran's prosecutor-general ordered that a number of major reformist Web logs be blocked by Internet service providers. Dozens of others have been banned, and Web journalists continue to be harassed, illegally held in solitary confinement and even tortured for offenses the government deems "un-Islamic."
The activist said the latest crackdown intended to shut down reformist Web sites was in fact "a ploy to force the confession of prominent young leaders with a spectrum of contacts ... carried out by rogue elements within the government."
A number of Web journalists released from prison have confirmed allegations of coercion.
Nevertheless, the fact that some hardliners in Iran have recently taken a more aggressive stance toward the blogging community shows it has finally recognized its Achilles' heel.
"The way the regime has treated journalists and bloggers by jailing, torturing, and silencing has backfired," said Jafarzadeh. "The regime cannot ... be successful in shutting the door. But their ongoing attempts to do so have created even more thirst among youth for social freedom."
According to one source, the solidarity bloggers have demonstrated in the face of recent persecution has moved superiors in the state judiciary to investigate unlawful treatment of detainees at the hands of lesser officials. This may or may not be a sign the government is starting to back off.
Paradoxically, it could be argued that hardliners undermine their own power by stifling Internet commentary in Iran. The buzz in Washington created by Seymour Hersh's January New Yorker article has only been deafened by the volume of debate among Iranians in response to rumors of a possible U.S. military strike.
The conventional neo-con wisdom - that reform-minded Iranians would seize the momentum of an American or Israeli offensive to topple the authoritarian regime - is discussed with contempt in the Iranian blogosphere.
"Obviously you have no real understanding of the Iranian psyche," wrote one blogger at the peaceiran.com blogspot. "We would rather live and die under the Mullah's flag than to get 'liberated' by Americans. President Bush has already sabotaged the Iranian people's movement toward democracy once by branding Iran as part of an 'axis of evil,' hence giving the hardliners enough pretext and justification to prosecute activists and reformers even more vigorously than before."
This was corroborated by the activist, who noted that shutting down "open spaces" is easier under the pretense of national security.
A 27-year-old translator from Tehran, posted at the blogspot iraniandiaries.com, wrote, "Should I believe you worry about human rights in my country? Should I believe you care about the discriminations in my country? Huh! We all know that all these (wars) are just to get closer to oil resources. We all know that these matters can easily be resolved by diplomatic ways. ... Stop killing the 'human beings' in the name of 'human rights.' And let us choose our way of life by ourselves."
Of course, not every blogger echoes these feelings. But the message remains the same: The Iranian blogosphere, and, by extension, the nation's 70 million people at large, comprise a political Pandora's box that defy the oversimplified divide of conservatives vs. reformers the Western media is so quick to ascribe.
At this critical juncture, blogs have the capacity to serve as an outward-facing window into the grassroots sentiments of Iranians, who appear to be in consensus that self-determination must trump violent upheaval.
If blogs are appraised at face value, there is good reason to believe the movement-in-progress against Iran's authoritarian regime is less a revolution of sticks and stones -- never mind bombs -- and more an erosion of tyrannical power in which words are the weapons of choice.
"Blogging is a win-win situation for the young movement in Iran and a lose-lose situation for the regime," Jafarzadeh concluded. "If the regime would allow bloggers to operate with total freedom, this message would encourage people to seek regime change through increased activity. On the other hand, cracking down on bloggers further convinces the population that this regime is absolutely against personal freedom, and there is no alternative but regime change ... that Iranians must do themselves."