TEHRAN, Iran — Some days ago, Mahdi Taghizadeh did something he never thought he would — at least, not in Iran. He took a screen shot and shared the image with his followers on Twitter.
“They were all excited,” Mr. Taghizadeh, an Internet entrepreneur, said. “Finally.”
Mr. Taghizadeh’s small triumph on the sidewalk of a Tehran street was among the first tangible results of a rare victory for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the hard-liners who effectively rule this country. Last week, the government unexpectedly granted 3G and 4G licenses to the Islamic republic’s two principal mobile operators, which are rushing to roll out high-speed connections to their tens of millions of subscribers.
While Iranians willing to flout the law have long used illegal software to gain access to banned Internet sites such as YouTube and Twitter, Iran’s main cell phone operators had been ordered until now to reduce Internet speeds to a sub-snail’s pace, effectively making it impossible to use the sites, make video calls or send images.
Mr. Rouhani has long called for relaxing Iran’s tight grip on the Internet, but has had only limited success in the face of stern opposition from a conservative coalition of clerics, military commanders and lawmakers, who have argued that any relaxation of strictures will spread immorality and unwanted ideas.
There is also a political dimension to the conservatives’ resistance. Since anti-government protests rocked the streets of Tehran in 2009, the Iranian authorities have directed tireless efforts to ensure that activists cannot use the Internet to organize protests or distribute images and videos of demonstrations.
But in a speech to clerics Monday, Mr. Rouhani warned that the days of blunt methods of control were fast ending and urged them to be more tolerant of new technologies. “We cannot shut the gates of the world to our young generation,” he said, according to the state Islamic Republic News Agency. “Once, there was a time that someone would hide his radio at home, if he had one, to use it just for listening to the news. We have passed that era.”
Over the past few months, the government has allowed service providers to increase bandwidth for home connections, offering data traffic of as much as 10 megabits per second — still slow compared with the West, where users typically choose plans offering 20 to 30 megabits per second. Nevertheless, while Iran’s Internet access is still slow compared with that in many countries, it does now allow users to watch and send videos.
The president’s message is trust, his supporters say. Iranians are wise enough to make their own decisions, says Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to Mr. Rouhani’s government.
“Our educated people use the Internet in a healthy way,” he said, “and have the right to fast Internet, like all other people in the world.”
Throughout his first year in office, Mr. Rouhani has fought the hard-liners on multiple fronts, usually backing down. His adversaries, who control most of Iran’s levers of power, such as the judiciary and several important councils, want the president to fix the economy and cut a nuclear deal with the West on Iran’s terms, but have blocked all social changes.
Since the earliest years of their faith, Shiite clerics have dedicated themselves to preventing believers from committing vice and to promoting virtue. Over the years, they have banned the VCR, declared satellite TV illegal and blacked out millions of websites — including Facebook and Twitter — in a not terribly successful effort to protect their flock from modern communications technologies.
But the information age has left them divided. While most clerics agree that the Internet is good for science, they also say there must be oversight and control for almost everything else.
A leading ayatollah, Naser Makarem Shirazi, called upon the government to revoke the mobile Internet licenses, before young minds can be poisoned by “dirty pictures and clips,” a post on his website read.
To some extent, the government’s decision to allow high-speed Internet systems is a recognition of reality. Before now, millions of tech-savvy Iranians lived a forced life of crime, buying illegal software that enabled them to visit blocked sites. Nevertheless, even those who bypassed the state filters were stymied by the excruciatingly slow Internet speeds.
In his speech Monday, Mr. Rouhani did not address the issue of the filtering and blocking of websites, which will remain in place, analysts said. At a news conference Saturday, he said he remained committed to a nationwide intranet, like those maintained by companies, with only selected websites allowed.
Iran is notoriously inconsistent in its social policies, and there is no guarantee the new Internet speeds are here to stay. But there was one encouraging sign: Ayatollah Shirazi issued a statement Sunday saying his demand to revoke the licenses had been distorted. “We are not against technology,” he said. “But we feel the new technology must be purified before it is given to the people.”iran - Middle East - Iran government - Tehran - Hassan Rouhani - Google Inc