By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS and FARNAZ FASSIHI
Iran is taking steps toward an aggressive new form of censorship: a so-called national Internet that could, in effect, disconnect Iranian cyberspace from the rest of the world.
The leadership in Iran sees the project as a way to end the fight for control of the Internet, according to observers of Iranian policy inside and outside the country. Iran, already among the most sophisticated nations in online censoring, also promotes its national Internet as a cost-saving measure for consumers and as a way to uphold Islamic moral codes.
In February, as pro-democracy protests spread rapidly across the Middle East and North Africa, Reza Bagheri Asl, director of the telecommunication ministry's research institute, told an Iranian news agency that soon 60% of the nation's homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.
The unusual initiative appears part of a broader effort to confront what the regime now considers a major threat: an online invasion of Western ideas, culture and influence, primarily originating from the U.S. In recent speeches, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials have called this emerging conflict the "soft war."
On Friday, new reports emerged in the local press that Iran also intends to roll out its own computer operating system in coming months to replace Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. The development, which couldn't be independently confirmed, was attributed to Reza Taghipour, Iran's communication minister.
Iran's national Internet will be "a genuinely halalnetwork, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level," Ali Aghamohammadi, Iran's head of economic affairs, said recently according to a state-run news service. Halal means compliant with Islamic law.
Mr. Aghamohammadi said the new network would at first operate in parallel to the normal Internet—banks, government ministries and large companies would continue to have access to the regular Internet. Eventually, he said, the national network could replace the global Internet in Iran, as well as in other Muslim countries.
A spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations declined to comment further, saying the matter is a "technical question about the scientific progress of the country."
There are many obstacles. Even for a country isolated economically from the West by sanctions, the Internet is an important business tool. Limiting access could hinder investment from Russia, China and other trading partners. There's also the matter of having the expertise and resources for creating Iranian equivalents of popular search engines and websites, like Google.
Few think that Iran could completely cut its links to the wider Internet. But it could move toward a dual-Internet structure used in a few other countries with repressive regimes.
Myanmar said last October that public Internet connections would run through a separate system controlled and monitored by a new government company, accessing theoretically just Myanmar content. It's introducing alternatives to popular websites including an email service, called Ymail, as a replacement for Google Inc.'s Gmail.
Cuba, too, has what amounts to two Internets—one that connects to the outside world for tourists and government officials, and the other a closed and monitored network, with limited access, for public use. North Korea is taking its first tentative steps into cyberspace with a similar dual network, though with far fewer people on a much more rudimentary system.
Iran has a developed Internet culture, and blogs play a prominent role—even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one.
Though estimates vary, about 11 of every 100 Iranians are online, according to the International Telecommunication Union, among the highest percentages among comparable countries in the region. Because of this, during the protests following 2009's controversial presidential election, the world was able to follow events on the ground nearly live, through video and images circulated on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.
"It might not be possible to cut off Iran and put it in a box," said Fred Petrossian, who fled Iran in the 1990s and is now online editor of Radio Farda, which is Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Iranian news service. "But it's what they're working on."
The discovery last year of the sophisticated "Stuxnet" computer worm that apparently disrupted Iran's nuclear program has added urgency to the Internet initiative, Iran watchers say. Iran believes the Stuxnet attack was orchestrated by Israel and the U.S.
"The regime no longer fears a physical attack from the West," said Mahmood Enayat, director of the Iran media program at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. "It still thinks the West wants to take over Iran, but through the Internet."
The U.S. State Department's funding of tools to circumvent Internet censorship, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent speeches advocating Internet freedom, have reinforced Iran's perceptions, these people said.
Iran got connected to the Internet in the early 1990s, making it the first Muslim nation in the Middle East online, and the second in the region behind Israel. Young, educated and largely centered in cities, Iranians embraced the new technology.
Authorities first encouraged Internet use, seeing it as a way to spread Islamic and revolutionary ideology and to support science and technology research. Hundreds of private Internet service providers emerged. Nearly all of them connected through Data Communications Iran, or DCI, the Internet arm of the state telecommunications monopoly.
The mood changed in the late 1990s, when Islamic hardliners pushed back against the more open policies of then-president Mohammad Khatami. The subsequent shuttering of dozens of so-called reformist newspapers had the unintended effect of triggering the explosion of the Iranian blogosphere. Journalists who had lost their jobs went online. Readers followed.
Authorities struck back. In 2003, officials announced plans to block more than 15,000 websites, according to a report by the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration of several Western universities. The regime began arresting bloggers.
Iran tried to shore up its cyber defenses in other ways, including upgrading its filtering system, for the first time using only Iranian technology. Until around 2007, the country had relied on filtering gear from U.S. companies, obtained through third countries and sometimes involving pirated versions, including Secure Computing Corp.'s SmartFilter, as well as products from Juniper Networks Inc. and Fortinet Inc., according to Iranian engineers familiar with with the filtering.
Such products are designed primarily to combat malware and viruses, but can be used to block other things, such as websites. Iranian officials several years ago designed their own filtering system—based on what they learned from the illegally obtained U.S. products—so they could service and upgrade it on their own, according to the Iranian engineers.
A Fortinet spokesman said he was unaware of any company products in Iran, adding that the company doesn't sell to embargoed countries, nor do its resellers. McAfee Inc., which owns Secure Computing, said no contract or support was provided to Iran. Intel Corp. recently bought McAfee, which added that it can now disable its technology obtained by embargoed countries. A Juniper spokesman said the company has a "strict policy of compliance with U.S. export law," and hasn't sold products to Iran.
The notion of an Iran-only Internet emerged in 2005 when Mr. Ahmadinejad became president. Officials experimented with pilot programs using a closed network serving more than 3,000 Iranian public schools as well as 400 local offices of the education ministry.
The government in 2008 allocated $1 billion to continue building the needed infrastructure. "The national Internet will not limit access for users," Abdolmajid Riazi, then-deputy director of communication technology in the ministry of telecommunications, said of the project that year. "It will instead empower Iran and protect its society from cultural invasion and threats."
Iran's government has also argued that an Iranian Internet would be cheaper for users. Replacing international data traffic with domestic traffic could cut down on hefty international telecom costs.
The widespread violence following Iran's deeply divisive presidential election in June 2009 exposed the limits of Iran's Internet control—strengthening the case for replacing the normal Internet with a closed, domestic version. In one of the most dramatic moments of the crisis, video showing the apparent shooting death of a female student, Neda Agha-Soltan, circulated globally and nearly in real time.
Some of the holes in Iran's Internet security blanket were punched by sympathetic people working within it. According to one former engineer at DCI, the government Internet company, during the 2009 protests he would block some prohibited websites only partially—letting traffic through to the outside world.
Since the 2009 protests, the government has ratcheted up its online repression. "Countering the soft war is the main priority for us today," Mr. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said November 2009 in a speech to members of the Basij, a pro-government paramilitary volunteer group. "In a soft war the enemy tries to make use of advanced and cultural and communication tools to spread lies and rumors."
The Revolutionary Guard, a powerful branch of the Iranian security forces, has taken the lead in the virtual fight. In late 2009, the Guard acquired a majority stake of the state telecom monopoly that owns DCI. That put all of Iran's communications networks under Revolutionary Guard control.
The Guard has created a "Cyber Army" as part of an effort to train more than 250,000 computer hackers. It recently took credit for attacks on Western sites including Voice of America, the U.S. government-funded international broadcasting service. And at the telecom ministry, work has begun on a national search engine called "Ya Hagh," or "Oh, Justice," as a possible alternative to popular search engines like Google and Yahoo.