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Society & Culture

The Business Behind the High-Speed Fatwa

September 2, 2014
Reza HaghighatNejad
5 min read
The Business Behind the High-Speed Fatwa

Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi created a stir last week when he issued a fatwa declaring that high-speed and mobile internet is immoral and contravenes Islamic law. In a press conference just day later, President Hassan Rouhani sought to make light of the cleric’s decree, joking that “if we want to download an article we must sit for hours and sometimes we fall sleep.” The president also presented his own plans for high-speed internet as a sealed decision, invoking Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s remarks about the imperatives of scientific progress. 

Shirazi, who happens to also be a Holocaust-denier, falls squarely in the camp of establishment ayatollahs whose rulings and rhetoric bolster the most conservative vision of the Islamic Republic, and is prone to giving rulings that are useful to the hardline agenda of the movement. 

His edict provided hardliners a new front on which to attack Rouhani’s government and there was even talk that Minister of Communications and Technology, Mahmoud Vaezi, should be impeached. Rouhani’s foes accuse the government of trying to bypass the Supreme Council for Cyberspace, a body that defines how the internet must be used or offered, but Vaezi has denied this charge and argued that existing regulations would not be altered by internet at a higher speed.


The Real Issue

But the hardliners are not really troubled about the speed of the Internet, their true concerns originate elsewhere. 

The context extends back to the autumn of 2011, when billboards went up across Tehran and the nearby city of Karaj with the slogan “Your Life in Your Hands”. The ads belonged to RighTel, a new internet and SIM card provider. RighTel corporation was formed in 2007 and a year later received a permit to provide Iranians with high-speed internet. It began aggressively advertising its presence on the market and its services for video calls became hugely popular.

At the outset, criticism of Rightel, even from the hardline media, was limited to technical issues –  limited coverage, high prices and slow speed. But slowly the tenor of the criticism began to shift. In January 2013 Cyber Police officials declared that video calls posed a grave threat to the sanctity of the family and were in violation of Sharia, as they permitted unrelated men and women to communicate with one another.

In November 2012 Fars News Agency reported that RighTel could not air its commercials on the state-run TV because the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) “believes that it has a monopoly on broadcasting video. Therefore it considers that RighTel, by providing the ability to communicate both voice and video at high speed is violating IRIB’s privileges.”

RighTel issued statements and tried to convince its opponents that it observed both Islamic concerns and existing regulations, but it was too late.


The Business Behind the High-Speed Fatwa


Techno-phone Ayatollahs

The ayatollahs entered the fray and issued fatwas on the forbidden nature of communication between unrelated men and women through video phones. The arguments then found their way to the floor of the parliament and to the Supreme Council for Cyberspace.

In February 2013 the government banned RighTel products from schools and the company announced that it would only sell its SIM cards to people over 18.

At that time Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi issued a fatwa on communicating through video phones which said “There is no doubt that it corrupts more than it does good. It would be just another source of corruption in our society which unfortunately is suffering from many corruptions.”  Ayatollah Alavi Gorgani, who is no friend of the Supreme Leader, agreed by saying that providing video phones “whether by the government or by the private sector is wrong and is against Sharia laws.”

These edicts fuelled the notion that high-speed and mobile internet was abetting social corruption, and some hardline media began accusing providers of working with prostitution gangs. In April 2013 the Supreme Council for Cyberspace banned RighTel from offering video phone services altogether. According to Rouhani’s Minister of Communication this ban is still in effect and no company is allowed to provide services for video phones.

In June of 2013 RighTel sought to receive a “cultural permit” (or “cultural justification”) for its video service from the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. It offered a nine-month contract for about $10 million for a joint project with the Qom seminary, the Ministry of Communications and two universities. In September 2013 the Minister of Communications announced that the draft of the “justification” was ready and was under review. In February 2014 the Deputy Minister of Communications declared that pending total supervision and control the RighTel service could resume.

But the new edict by Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has brought this project to a halt, with Vaezi announcing that no new firm can offer video phone services.

Mashregh News, a site which presents itself as a vanguard in the cultural war against the West, wrote that until all legal and technical steps are taken to control the content of the internet, high-speed “is against national interests and is treasonous.”


The Business 

We must not forget that this cultural and ideological fight has a commercial side as well. Besides the opposition of IRIB, the entry of new providers into the marketplace ended the monopoly of RighTel. It is quite possible that various firms are involved behind the scenes, in order to prevent competitors from benefiting by offering video phone services.

A high-speed internet capable of supporting both video and voice would make a loser of another contender: the Telecommunication Company of Iran, a firm established in 1971 under the Shah as a state-owned corporation that the Islamic Republic only privatized in 2007. In October 2009 Mobin Trust Consortium purchased 51 percent of the company for $8 billion. Two of the three companies that make up this consortium belong to the Revolutionary Guards and third one belongs to Setad (or the Headquarters for Executing the Orders of the Imam), a multi-sector business conglomerate supervised by Ayatollah Khamenei. It is to be expected that they are worried about losing profits in the marketplace.

The quarrel has a political aspect as well. The Supreme Council for Cyberspace was formed in March 2012 by directive from Khamenei to control Iran’s cyber policies. In the past year Rouhani’s government has tried to side-step the oversight of this intruding body. The confrontation between the two came to a head when Rouhani forbid the implementation of the Council’s decision to filter WhatsApp Messenger, a software and subscription service that allows smartphones to use the internet for sending and receiving text messages, audio, video and location information. The Council reacted angrily, fearful that it was losing its authority under Rouhani. 

With all these concerns involved in the fray, what is clear that the dispute over high-speed internet is overlayed by both political and business interests. Ayatollah Shirazi’s fatwa only hints at all that is involved. 


Images of Iran

Today's newspapers in Iran

September 1, 2014
Today's newspapers in Iran