Iran Steps Up War on Social Media

Kaveh Kazemi via Getty Images

Another battle is being waged in Iran's internal cyber war. Iranian leadership has banned Instagram, the picture sharing website.

Now Instagram has the distinction of joining the plethora of social media that the Islamic Republic has banned. The illustrious group includes Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Not surprisingly, the leadership of Iran is extremely active on these and other social media platforms -- it is how they spread their message to the whole, wide, world. Remember the famous phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani? The call took place as Rouhani left the United Nations following his appearance at the General Assembly as he was on his way to JFK airport for his return trip to Iran. After the conversation, which turned out to be the watershed for US/ Iranian dialogue, the entire content of the call was tweeted for all the world to see. And who was the tweeter? None other than Iranian President Rouhani.

Forget about the argument of hypocrisy. This is pure politics and indoctrination. Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif is extremely active on Twitter. He is most active when he is in negotiations with the P5 + 1 on the nuclear issue when a looming deadline hangs over everyone's head. Zarif updates and informs and manipulates the media and world opinion through his Twitter postings. Of course, it is not Zarif's fingers on the keyboard, it is his team. But it is his message. And who reads his messages. Not the people of Iran. The people of Iran never legally see these postings -- they are blocked. The postings are for your eyes and my eyes and for the rest of the Western world.

Despite the efforts of their leaders, Iranian youth cannot be stopped by some computer block. They, together with international hackers, find ways around the obstacles put in their cyber pathway.

A few years ago, The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei determined that the cyber world was so out of control in Iran that he established a special agency to combat cyber invasion.

The agency was charged with protecting Iran from cyber attacks and stopping the culture attacks that were infecting the lives of Iranian youth. In the end, the agency recruited some of the finest young people in Iran to work for them and now, two years later, Iran has become a serious player in the hacker world.

Recently, the Iranian News Agency IRNA quoted Iranian President Rouhani saying "We should see the cyberworld as an opportunity." He continued, "Why are we so shaky? Why don't we trust our youth?" Within Iran Rouhani is viewed as weak and the fiercely conservative flank thinks of him as a liberal Westerner. Those statements were fodder for their fire. They called his statements a symbol of his failure as a leader.

It should come as no surprise that six young people -- both young men and young women which is also unheard of in Iran -- were recently arrested for dancing and making a music video to the popular song "Happy" by Pharrell Williams which, despite all the restrictions and laws, has become a huge hit in their country. Watch the video.

They were arrested and ISNA, the Iranian Student News Agency, quoted the Teheran chief of police as saying that the reason for the arrest was "obscene video clip that offended the public morals and was released in cyberspace." The more actionable offense was probably the fact that the women did not cover their hair. That violation is a simple and constant prosecutorial success. On Tuesday, after hearing about what happened, Williams released a statement saying "It's beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness."

The producer of the video was not released and those who were let go were told that they would be prosecuted. After their release, they promised not to post the piece or do it again. And then President Rouhani took to his Twitteraccount and tweeted: "#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy."

He has 202K followers.

The cyber war in Iran is taking on the look of a civil war, it is splitting the country into different camps. It seems that even though President Rouhani might be on the side of freedom, it is the enemies of free speech in Iran who have the power and the money to oppress. It is unclear if Rouhani really believes in this freedom or if it just, for the moment, expedient. And we have no way of telling how long even he will be able to tweet or even speak his mind if the conservative elements in Iran have their way.