The country has a young, tech-savvy population, more than half of which is under the age of 30, making it an important voice in determining the country's future.
Rouhani's diplomatic outreach to the U.S. also has made him appear as a breath of fresh air for the West compared to his more conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has shelved the traditional aggressive rhetoric about Iranian rival Israel, dismissing the idea of invading other nations during a military parade in April. The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but President Barack Obama and Rouhani took a historic step by talking on the phone in September.
But despite Rouhani's outreach, using the Internet remains difficult in Iran amid government repression. Young Iranians were reminded of that recently after posting a video of themselves dancing and lip-syncing to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams during a sunny day on the rooftops of Tehran.
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The video shows the group laughing and having a good time, but Tehran police saw the performance as indecent since the women were not wearing headscarves and were dancing with men. Iran also imposes restrictions on certain music and YouTube access as part of the curb on free expression enforced since the country became a theocracy in 1979.
Police arrested six people from the video, much the same way Iranians are routinely locked up for performing forbidden rock music or drinking alcohol. The dancers eventually were released on bail on the same day that Rouhani apparently called for leniency. Twitter access – like YouTube – is restricted for many in Iran, but Rouhani tweeted a statement he made in 2013, writing:
Some in Iran’s government fear online free expression will undermine its theocracy, but Rouhani called the Internet an opportunity during a speech earlier this month, telling Iranians, “We must recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web," according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. American lawmakers differ on domestic Internet regulation, but unanimously fight for international online freedom as a means to boost democracy and innovation.
"The impact of this virtual world on the society, country and even on people’s lifestyles is absolutely real," Rouhani said.
This is a sharp change in language for an Iranian head of state. Web censorship in Iran has spiked since June 2009, when allegations that Ahmadinejad cheated his way to re-election set off massive protests. In what is now dubbed the Green Movement, Iranians used mobile phones and social networks like Twitter to organize anti-government marches in a precursor to the social media-fueled Arab Spring demonstrations that overthrew governments in Egypt and Tunisia roughly a year later.
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Since then, the government has tightened its grip on the Internet, sometimes damaging its own economy by shutting down wireless signals for a few hours on major holidays to cut off protesters from social networking resources. After being blindsided by the protests, a consortium affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps acquired a controlling stake in the country's major telecommunications firm, effectively giving the group a digital kill switch.
This repression has made it harder for younger Iranians who look to the West for the latest trends. For example, some who want music from the U.S. use a proxy server – a network tool employed by those who want to access the global Internet while evading domestic surveillance – to bypass government firewalls, says Sanja Kelly, project director of the Freedom on the Net index at the watchdog group Freedom House. But Iran's government is cracking down on those services.
“It’s getting harder for people to use proxy servers,” Kelly says. “The authorities are better able to recognize international traffic compared with domestic traffic."
While Rouhani's overtures on the Internet make him sound like a reformer, he has so far not slowed his country's cultural repression. His speeches and statements are likely public relations ploys to avoid stricter economic sanctions from Western nations, says Robert Charles, a former assistant secretary of state who served during the George W. Bush administration. Iranian officials killed 369 people in 2013 in executions motivated by political or ethnic grudges, second only to China, which killed 778 for those reasons, according to Charles' consulting firm. That's a big number considering Iran has a population of roughly 80 million people, compared with China’s count of about 1.35 billion.
“There is a sort of sleight of hand going on here, a public relations initiative,” Charles says. “If they present a good public face through things like Twitter and the social milieu the West treats as normal, they hope we will pay less attention to their nuclear activities and executions of dissidents."
The Obama administration has a deadline of July 20 to barter a deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear technology, thus reducing tensions in the Middle East. A nuclear deal with the U.S. will determine the future of Iran’s political balance and may give Rouhani a shot to stand behind his Internet freedom rhetoric, says Trita Parsi, president of the nonprofit National Iranian American Council.
“The cultural affinity with the U.S. is immense among a large sector of the population, but exploring it remains somewhat difficult, at least until there is a successful nuclear deal,” says Parsi, author of the book "A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran." “This shows that at the end of the day, the nuclear negotiations are about so much more than just centrifuges and enriched uranium.”
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Even if Rouhani is motivated to liberalize the state, he might be limited by politicians fearful of the Internet’s power to organize protests. He faces competition from the theocracy’s supreme leader – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also uses Twitter – but more significantly from the Revolutionary Guard Corps and a bureaucracy full of police and censors. For example, the leader of Iran’s commission that enforces online censorship laws, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, wants to continue blocking Facebook access because he views it as a CIA data collection front with Zionist motives.
It's been obvious that Rouhani’s idea of the Internet also does not match the Western concept of free access to social networks and uncensored websites. He has called for Iranians to develop more software and hardware and not rely solely on imported technologies, the IRNA reports.
Iran is building its own national Internet with help from the Chinese, and it could be completed by 2016, Kelly says. A government-controlled Internet could help Iran’s economy by allowing access to faster networks for lower prices, but it would also increase the theocracy’s ability to monitor and censor online access.
Despite the crackdown, Iranians still defy censors by posting independent music videos on YouTube and sharing photos on Facebook, including on the page My Stealthy Freedom, where Persian women post images of themselves without their state-mandated headscarves.
"Pressure from the population for change is persistent, and while some progress has been achieved, patience is running out in some pockets," Parsi says.