Over the last two years, Iran’s tech minister has grown in influence and popularity. But, asks Small Media, what does that mean for the future of Iranian citizens’ digital rights?
In August 2019, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi entered the second half of his tenure as Iran’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) minister. A controversial figure from the start, at first glance his youth and previous experience as deputy ICT minister, coupled with his support for unfiltered internet access, made him a seemingly safe pick for realizing President Rouhani’s campaign promises to free the internet. However, controversy broke out when his involvement with the intelligence ministry was brought to light, causing consternation amongst both reformists and conservative members of parliament about his stances on online surveillance and filtering.
Regardless, Jahromi’s appointment was confirmed by the Iranian parliament in July 2017, with 152 votes supporting his appointment, 120 against. With only an eight-vote majority of the 144 needed for his confirmation, he became the most unpopular appointment in Rouhani’s second cabinet [Persian link].
Jahromi’s confirmation as ICT Minister was a disappointment to many given his involvement with the intelligence ministry, leaving behind any hopes for reform of Iran’s harsh internet policies. It made sense therefore for Jahromi to cultivate a base of support among the public, using his popular Twitter and Instagram accounts – with 153,900 and 381,000 followers respectively at the time of writing — to directly address claims about his involvement in the crackdown during the 2009 election protests, and to market himself as an opponent of filtering and censorship policies.
Two years on, however, little has changed in the landscape of Iran’s heavily-restricted internet. Filtering policies remains in place, and arguably have become more stringent, with a fresh wave of filtering on Telegram and Twitter. But some things have changed – namely, Jahromi’s relationship with the parliament.
Chronicled through a series of “open sessions” in parliament, we see the beginnings of an improved relationship between the two parties, and a greater level of trust in Jahromi from some key establishment figures. The worry for advocates for better digital rights in Iran is that Jahromi’s strengthened political position may see his decisions subjected to lesser scrutiny, and that his ambitious – and often controversial – policy agenda might be implemented with minimal public attention and little debate in the legislature.
Jahromi and the Parliament
As mentioned, Jahromi has previously clashed with critics in both reformist and conservative political camps. In 2018, Jahromi’s public calls to stop filtering Twitter were openly criticized by Deputy Attorney General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi. He was also questioned on a number of occasions by MPs about his performance and on the ministry’s agenda on issues such as domestic messaging apps, filtering, eGovernment and Iran’s National Internet Network (SHOMA). When presented with unsatisfactory responses, MPs summoned Jahromi to address their concerns in open sessions, of which he has now attended on three separate occasions.
During Jahromi’s first session in 2018 – called by Qazvin MP and Communications Committee member Seyyedeh Hamideh Zarabadi, who spoke against Jahromi during his recommendation hearing, and Tehran MP and Finance Committee member Seyyedeh Fatemeh Hosseini (both of whom are members of the reformist faction “List of Hope”) – Jahromi was questioned on upgrades to transit networks and maintenance contracts. Neither Zarabadi nor Hosseini were satisfied with Jahromi’s answers, and the session was put to a vote, which ended with a narrow majority of 98 MPs voting in his favor, 87 against and seven abstaining out of the 205 legislators.
In his second public session on June 27 this year, he received his first "yellow card" following questions brought forward by Mahmoud Negahban Salami, MP for Khaf and Roshtkhar, (also a "List of Hope" member), relating to mobile phones, regional connectivity and ICT ministry progress on the development of new eGovernment systems.
Despite Jahromi’s assertion that on average 20 new villages gain access to the internet on a daily basis, MPs were dissatisfied with his lack of progress on the development of eGovernment services. With an 83-vote tie and seven abstentions, parliament was not satisfied with Jahromi’s response, leading to Jahromi’s first warning from parliament – receiving three can lead to impeachment proceedings.
So there was a lot at stake earlier this month when on September 2 Jahromi was summoned by Mashhad MP and Cyberspace Committee Chair Nasrollah Pejmanfar, a conservative cleric and a hardliner on internet issues and a vocal supporter of filtering. Jahromi was questioned on the management of virtual private networks (VPNs), the sale of counterfeit SIM cards, and new authentication systems for online users.
Jahromi responded by saying that these issues were outside the ICT ministry’s jurisdiction. Pejmanfar’s dissatisfaction with Jahromi’s response led to a vote, with 102 MPs voting in Jahromi’s favor – a mark of parliament’s growing satisfaction with his performance.
The recent session is significant as it signals some movement from formerly critical MPs who voted against Jahromi shifting behind him and his agenda, including Abdolreza Hashemzaei, Ghasem Ahmadi Lasheki and Mohammad-Javad Jamali Nobandegani. Taking these votes into account it seems that Jahromi is enjoying a much greater support among Iranian parliament deputies in comparison to only two years ago at the time of his confirmation.
Jahromi and Iran’s Digital Future
This rise in support can somewhat be explained by looking at Jahromi’s record over the last two years and his prospect as a rising political star in Iran. For example, some members of parliament who were concerned about Jahromi’s stated opposition to filtering may now be feeling reassured that his ministry ultimately seems to pose few obstacles to the further implementation of censorship policies. His focus on developing SHOMA and regulating the domestic mobile phone market are broadly in line with the policy priorities of the Supreme Leader and government officials. This has resulted in a broad consensus among key decision-makers on their long-term vision of Iran’s digital future, built around a national internet with centralized domestic controls.
This trust may be significant for Jahromi’s political future. As confidence around him grows, he could be granted more autonomy (and receive less scrutiny) to develop and implement his digital policy agenda and It might also hint at aspirations for higher office in the near future – something which he has previously denied.
Nonetheless Jahromi is a young, ambitious and effective politician with a cultivated media image who has managed to make tacit supporters out of a number of his former political opponents and stands to remain in Iranian politics for many years to come. The support from parliament further confirms this fact.
The emerging consensus around Jahromi and his policy agenda poses some significant risks to Iranian citizens’ rights online. With significant resources continuing to pour into the development of SHOMA and a whole host of localized, home-grown apps and devices, Jahromi is gradually transforming the environment in which Iranians connect and engage online. With his ICT ministry and Iran’s more vocal filtering proponents in a period of (mostly) peaceful co-existence, advocates for online privacy and freedom of expression need to remain on guard, and to properly scrutinize Jahromi’s actions in the months and years ahead.