Magazine article Reason

Chatroom Revolutionaries: Iran's Dissidents and Exiles Discover the Web

Magazine article Reason

Chatroom Revolutionaries: Iran's Dissidents and Exiles Discover the Web

Article excerpt

"GOT A MULLAH?" asks a stainless steel coffee mug for sale on the Web. Emblazoned alongside the question is a cartoon of a giant hand clenching two irritated-looking clerics who resemble Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

One click away, a heather gray, 100-percent cotton T-shirt proclaiming "Free All Political Prisoners in Iran NOW!" features a famous image of Ahmad Batebi, an Iranian film student sentenced to i5 years for anti-mullah activities. The widely reproduced image shows Batebi's "crime": holding aloft a bloodstained shirt that belonged to a friend beaten by regime forces.

Both items--along with lunch boxes, greeting cards, and bumper stickers--are available to any Iranian expatriate at activistchat.com, a site that also features news, petitions, forums, editorials, and other information of interest to the Iranian diaspora. Such sites are the tools of the would-be next Iranian revolution. Many are produced by revolutionaries who grew up not in Iran but in Europe and North America. They communicate with their comrades however they can, surfing for any scrap of news available from within the tightly controlled Islamic Republic of Iran. Aside from their unconcealed disdain for the ruling clerics in Tehran, they are characterized by an intense nationalism and not a little intergroup disagreement over where Irma should be headed.

"I cannot go into specifics," Potkin Azarmehr, director of the Campaign to Free Iran's Students (clisnews.com), says cryptically of his group's work with those inside Iran. Careless communications, the dissidents explain, can trigger crackdowns, closing precious avenues of contact. "Certainly the global communications revolution has made things a lot easier" he says. "You only have to look at the areas in which the Islamic Republic has endeavored to crack down," he adds, to get clues about how the world of dissident Iranians is operating.

In fact, the way the opposition communicates with students inside Iran is no great secret. E-mails, chat rooms, and phone calls to family and friends are the only near-real-time ways to find out what is going on inside the Islamic Republic. All involved are acutely aware of the fact that Iran's intelligence and security services try to intercept such communications, with inconsistent results.

Roozbeh Farahanipour, executive director of the Glorious Frontiers Party (marzeporgohar.org), notes matter-of-factly that such communications are dangerous, "because ff the regime finds out, you are probably going to be executed." But for the students and their supporters, that's a very big if.

The students believe that in the long run they can defeat the regime's security efforts. But the regime isn't their only problem. Despite their high-tech communications, expatriate opponents of the regime face a number of low-tech challenges. Among them are competing agendas, a debilitating scramble for leadership, and a chronic lack of funds.

Such challenges notwithstanding, the dissidents make daily efforts to undermine the regime. As with all authoritarian governments, the Islamic Republic's security agencies can process only so much information about the counterrevolutionaries, and they are constrained by security requirements, financial resources, even the banal strictures of available time. The student groups know this and hope that through sheer message volume and guile they can stay one step ahead of their adversaries.

Aryo Pirouznia, spokesman for the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran (daneshjoo.org--daneshjoo means "student"), observes that when the game is cat and mouse, the mice have to stay on the cutting edge. "Our site has been blocked" by the regime, he states. "But what they don't understand is that ... we are not in an age in which a country's borders can be closed." Indeed, dissident groups have found a technological solution to their communications problems: Anonymizer. …

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