Recent scholarship on authoritarianism, democratic backsliding and state censorship has shifted its focus. Research on explicit abuses of power has given way towards the implicit means by which nation states undermine their political dissidents. This takes shape in many forms including the expansion of libel laws, manipulation of the judiciary, as well as voter identification and registration reform. These aspects are under stricter scrutiny lately because we have seen these tactics employed by several populist leaders in ways which undermine democracy.
The situation in Iran, however, is devoid of such nuances. It’s no secret that press freedom in Iran has been severely repressed. The Ayatollah and his administration are among a handful of governments that continue to employ imputent and visible policies of censorship. Election integrity in the country is equally problematic. While the government at least tries to craft a veneer of democracy, it is unequivocally known internally and externally that elections are not fair and free. All candidates for office, regardless of their popularity, are subject to intense vetting processes through a “Guardian Council.” This unelected body can disqualify any given contender for office. They frequently use this power to remove candidates from the ballot who aren’t sympathetic to the current authority. Such methods resemble a consolidation of power through stacking the judiciary, a method employed by several leaders known for antidemocratic reforms.
The unchecked power of the Ayatollah and his political sympathizers is cause for a significant, but quiet concern among the populace. Ali Khameni officially took power as Supreme Commander in 1989, but had served as President for nearly a decade prior. Over the course of his reign, the emergence of the internet has become an increasingly challenging obstacle in the perseverance of his legitimacy. Independent media outlets around the world have reported on human rights abuses, intimidation of journalists and a Khameni’s lavish lifestyle. Through the internet, Iranian dissidents have access to an abundance of information on these topics. The world wide web has proven, not just in Iran, but around the world to be a pro-democratic tool by which government censorship can be overrun. Iran has responded to these threats with one of the most restrictive and unforgiving policies of internet censorship in the entire world. Over a third of popular websites are blocked, among which include popular social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Telegram. Despite this, the Iranian government itself, as well as some of its key figures, maintain active social media accounts on Twitter and other platforms. Powerful individuals are not the only ones to surpass the Iranian censorship firewall, many ordinary citizens are able to access an unrestricted internet through the use of VPN technologies and other means. Telegram, despite being banned in 2018, is currently used by nearly 45 million Iranians.
This takes us to the present, where the government is considering a bill which would take their current approach to a new level. The Cyberspace Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services, commonly referred to as the Protection Bill, would require service providers to comply with government policies of censorship. Considering the economic and cultural backlash associated with this, it’s unlikely that any major platforms would go along with the bill’s provisions. In all likelihood, this will result in a hardline policy towards corporations such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.
Furthermore, the bill aims to infringe upon internet privacy. Under these federal guidelines, service providers would need to confirm the “legal identities” of its users. This severely breaches citizen privacy, creates a chilling effect and provides substantial roadblocks to dissident journalists and activists. Under another provision, the acquisition or circulation of VPN’s and other technologies designed to crack censorship, would become convictable by up to 2 years in prison. Lastly, net neutrality would be abolished, placing Iranian citizens in layered tiers based upon their profession and other factors. Their placement within this system determines their internet access relative to others. Such policies are uniquely authoritarian, as supporters can be granted institutional forbearance, affording sympathizers with selective privileges.
In 2021, Freedom House compiled a ranking of internet freedom in nations around the world. A “FOTN” score was applied to countries based on the presence of several categories of internet restrictions; higher scores suggested higher levels of freedom and vice versa. Iran’s FOTN score (16) was the second lowest on the list, with only China (10) being scored as more restrictive. Iran, as it stands today, has all one category of restriction considered by Freedom House. A “new law or directive increasing surveillance or restrictiction anonymity” has been passed by several nations of different FOTN levels, but not yet in Iran. With the passage of the Protection Bill, which unequivocally fulfills this requirement, Iran would join China as the only country possessing every category of internet control listed by Freedom House. An already precarious situation would become significantly worse, with regard to Iranian freedoms of expression.
It is difficult to view Iran within the contemporary framework of democratic Backsliding. This is because it is so unambiguously authoritarian that its actions do not as much require the false pretenses and “stealth” of more democratic states. Frequently, Iran transcends geopolitical trends we have witnessed over the past few decades. Autocratic leaders have increasingly allowed voices of “discontent” to remain unthreatened, while Iran continues to crack down even harder. Within the study of governments like Iran (Russia, China and Egypt come to mind), patterns which mirror the progression of more democratic states can be observed. For one, recent political history suggests a shift away from rapid authoritarian transformations and towards gradual measures which wither away at Democracy slowly.
We also have witnessed regimes veil their antidemocratic actions, behaviors or existence as being the consequence of democracy. Iran refers to itself as an “Islamic Republic,” resembling the nomenclature of “People’s Republic of China” and the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” It’s not just the namesake of these countries which is masked as democratic, their antidemocratic actions themselves are similarly shrouded. One example of this was Putin’s campaign finance reforms of 2012, which were said to remove the influence of foreign actors in Russian elections. The true purpose of these bills was to dispose of NGO’s who existed to protect civil society from nefarious opposition groups. Statements by Khomeini and fellow lawmakers present a similar tone; they claim that the Protection Bill serves to safeguard citizens and children from an “unbridled” and “malevolent” internet which is antithetical to the muslim faith. For very understandable reasons, contemporary authoritarian states cloak unchecked power through appeals to popular will.
Iran is not alone in the world in terms of its repression of civil liberties and its consolidation of state power. Like many authoritarians, the Ayatollah continues to uphold the illusion of representative rule, albeit a very weak one. The existence of such unchecked power, however, allows the Iranian government to implement measures of which most authoritarians couldn’t dream. This places it within a category which contradicts the majority of authoritarian trends and behaviors we have witnessed over the past two decades. We must therefore observe Iran within the contemporary scholarship of democratic erosion, but remain mindful of its unique and disparate condition.