Did you know that on the eve of the Iranian presidential election, that country--with 70 percent of its population under 30--has 75,000 bloggers? I find that pretty stunning--and I'm usually skeptical of blog-hype.
Blogging has gone international in a big way. And in Iran, blogging means that news, ideas and rumors are bypassing traditional censors. As one of Iran's leading bloggers recently pointed out at opendemocracy.net, Iran's blogs are generating "an unprecedented amount of information [and] pre-election news has...been much more transparent." In fact, Hossein Derakhshan argued, " it will probably be one of the most open and transparent elections Iran has ever seen."
The internet is playing a major role. This is the first time, for example, that most of the major candidates (except the oldest ones) have their own websites. And with an estimated three or four million internet users in Iran, blogs are opening up Iranian society and culture--despite the enduring threat of government censorship and imprisonment of journalists and activists.
As New America Foundation fellow Afshin Molavi observes, "Most Iranian blogs offer a space to tell jokes, share music files and photos, satirically lampoon Iranian rulers with clever photo-shop doctoring, and generally share personal experiences. The political blogs have a power beyond their small readership because of the reverberation effect: when they break a story or simply spread a juicy rumor, it is immediately emailed to hundreds of thousands of wired Iranians and filtered to the non-wired Iranians through word-of-mouth." (Even a former Vice-President, Mohammad Abtahi, angered many officials for spilling too many secrets in his blog.)
So, for those of you who want to diversify your daily news-feed, here's my list of ten blogs that offer an unprecedented window on Iran's political culture, while helping to open up and make that society more accountable.
1) Hoder.com: Molavi says Hoder is "the godfather of blogging in Iran"; he has a wide following, and numerous Iranian bloggers link to Hoder's blogspot. Hoder's real name is Hossein Derakhshan; his blog, which he calls "Editor: Myself," comes via Toronto, where the Tehran-born Derakhshan now makes his home. He offers observations on the June election and said in a recent email interview that blogs have "given much more transparency to how campaigns operate." And blogs also, says Hoder, have "enabled the campaigns to reach out to a network of educated and influential young students who make up the majority of the blogging community."
2) Massih Alinejad was a reporter for Iranian reformist newspapers, but when she exposed financial corruption in Iran's Parliament, higher-ups banned her from entering the building and she could no longer do her job. She was, the government said, acting "rude and intrusive." So, she started a blog.
3) Mr. Behi, a 27-year-old Tehran-based political blogger, captures the reservations many Iranians have about the political process. Behi's blog recently told us that he "enthusiastically voted for [reformist candidate] Khatami" in the 1997 elections because he and other Iranians believed "Khatami's great promises for a better society." But these promises never panned out. He now says, "casting my vote will not change anything." But his pessimism is tempered by hope, as when he explains that during a recent bloggers' forum with reformer and presidential hopeful Mostafa Moin, the bloggers asked so many pointed questions "that I thought maybe I am not in the Islamic Republic!"
4) Indeed, Moin, whose blog is in Persian, is a leading reformer who has supported the student movement. He's not the only candidate to understand the power of going on-line--though he may be the only one who personally updates his blog every day. (The Guardian Council, which clears candidates to run for office, recently barred Moin from appearing on the ballot.)
5) Brooding Persian provides background and history on Iranian politics. In one recent entry, Brooding Persian writes that the June election has "1,010 potential candidates, 921 men and 89 women." Brooding Persian offer many articles about the election and breakdowns of voting patterns in recent years, mixing well-written prose with sharp, ironic observations. An example: "Here in this heartland of evil at the tender age of 15 you can just walk into any station and vote as you please."
6) Written by journalist Omid Memarian, The Iranian Prospect examines democracy, civil society and social issues including the ways in which Iran's regime represses the media. The government, the site informs us, has recently "arrested and tortured more than 21 journalists, bloggers and IT technicians" and it has closed down more than 80 magazines and newspapers.
7) Shahram Kholdi's blog paints an Iranian Constitutional referendum as "a debate over the constitutional legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself." Kholdi says that former President Rafsanjani will likely prevail in the June election, but also points out that Iranians are so disillusioned that many will stay away from the polls, especially those living in the nation's largest cities.
8) Iran Votes 2005, written by Windsteed, 29, describes the Guardian Council as a kind of "filter" that must first approve a candidate before he or she can become an official candidate for president. We also learn on this site that a former soccer star and coach, Nasser Hejazi, is trying to seek the presidency. Windsteed, like a lot of the bloggers, echoes the point that a "calm mood" in the country indicates a "lack of trust or interest in the candidates" and in the prospects for democratic change in Iran anytime soon.
9) Iranian.com. Among other cultural and political items, you'll find a good interview with the presidential candidate Hooshang Amirahmadi who also directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. Amirahmadi predicts that if the elections "do not generate enthusiasm or produce an acceptable president, Washington most likely will adopt a policy of explicit regime change. If this happens, the 'Iraqicization' of Iran will begin."
10) IranianTruth.com, edited by Nema Milaninia, the executive director of the International Students Journal, discusses, among many topics, the relationship between the United States and Iran. Milaninia calls attention to efforts in the US House to tighten sanctions against Iran, predicting that such legislative efforts will ultimately backfire. She reflects a widespread view that ordinary Iranians will feel alienated and says the moves will fail to "back the Iranian regime against the wall."
Finally, at Iran Scan 1384, a new kind of meta-blog set up by opendemocracy.net, you'll also find Hoder and Milaninia and other leading students of Iranian politics discussing the June presidential election.
As Iran Scan and all of the other individual blogs remind us, while Iran remains a closed society, a fierce debate about the country's future is underway in the blogosphere. The coming election might not bring about much, if any, change in Iranians' lives, but the blogs could help open up that society, permitting the free flow of information and ideas like never before.