Free and Fair Elections – Case Study: Iran with David Suurland, Stephane Bussard

Stéphane Bussard, former Le Temps US correspondent in New York, and David Suurland, a Ph.D. and co-founder of the Foundation for Freedom of Information who has written extensively on political Islam, address the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


David Suurland: Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Suurland and I am a PhD candidate at the Law Faculty of Leiden University in the Netherlands where I work in the field of the legal and political philosophy of radical Islam. I am, however, here as a co-founder and chairman of the Foundation for Freedom of Information and I thank you for allowing me to speak on the role of the internet in the green movement in Iran and our work in the field of promoting the right to freedom of expression and information. I apologize in advance if my speech is a bit lengthy; as a political philosopher I tend to be broad-spoken and I hope you can forgive me for that. 

Before I begin I would like to say something about a discussion I had yesterday at dinner with some of my friends from here about everything we heard yesterday, about all the horrible stories from people from Tibet, from China, from Sudan, the story by Mr. Cosby. And, the question arose, “Why are we here? Why are we listening to this? Are we merely an audience? Is there something we can do?” And I have been to multiple events like this – human rights conventions – and every time you have this feeling, “What can I do? I don’t know what I can do, I can listen but that is very frustrating.” And I hope the story I am about to tell will give some of you out there an idea of what you can do because this was basically a grassroots project started from an example that we saw on television, which was the case of Nadar. So if it’s any consolation, I hope that this will give you an idea of the good that came out of it. 

The Foundation for Freedom of Information is a Dutch grassroots movement, which formed immediately after the coup by Ahmadinejad. Before commenting on the work of our foundation and the role of the internet in Iran, I would like to give you some background information on the events that have transpired in Iran, since the two are intricately connected: I will first say something about the broad political spectrum in Iran, secondly something about the role of the internet, and thirdly what my foundation or our foundation has done since then.

To those familiar with the regime in Iran, the coup itself may not have been surprising. Following the popular uprising against the obvious fraudulent results of the elections however many had high hopes that the opposition forces unified into the Green Movement would be able to force concessions from the Regime. We all have seen the images of hundreds of thousands of people, of peaceful protesters, marching through the streets of Tehran and other cities with the simple low-level demand of free and fair elections. Nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately not only has the regime refused to concede on any of the demands of the opposition, the past few months have shown a radicalization of the regime’s position and a dramatic change in the attitude of the demonstrators. As you may know, the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded on the widespread application of persecution, torture, and the annihilation of the former allies against Isha by Ayatollah Khomeini. This purge basically eliminated the secular, monarchic, liberal and communist parties from the political spectrum of Iran and led to the establishment of the exclusive supremacy of political Islam over Iran. Whilst people were allowed to vote, the person on whom one could vote, however, had to be approved by a council of clerics who would ensure that the Islamic character of the Republic would not be in peril from, let’s say, secular candidates. Laws that were adopted by the elected representatives were also susceptible to review by a council of clerics without any democratic legitimation. In the decades since the Islamic revolution, the ranks of the electable candidates have seen the emergence of a division between hardliners on the one hand and reformers – however moderate their reforms may have been – on the other hand. 

So in essence, to its most formal criteria, Iran is a democracy since one can vote upon candidates from more than one political denominator. But the degree of political diversity is extremely limited and, in essence, doesn’t give much of an alternative to the situation in existence since the year of the Islamic Revolution. In the last year, however, events have led to radicalization both on the side of the regime, as on the side of those opposed to the current regime. Power in the upper echelon of Iran shifted from the physically weak Supreme Leader Khomeini, to his henchman President Ahmadinejad. And Ahmadinejad himself has surrounded himself with clerics who even to Shiite theological standards operate on the outer fringes of radicalism, such as Ayatollah Yazdi. This group of Ayatollahs firmly believe that the Iranian system of government, known as “Velayat-e faqih” or “rulership of the jurists,” which is basically a theocratic dictatorship, not only can be but must be enforced if necessary by violence since it is from a theological perspective necessarily independent of the will of the people. 

We must also bear in mind that parallel to the protest against the regime runs the issue of the development of nuclear arms. Both the British and German foreign intelligence services have indicated that they believe the development of a functioning weapon is a question of months, not of years. This is relevant to the issue at hand since the group around Ahmadinejad belongs to a religious sect which is not only very anti-Semitic and sees the destruction of Israel as a religious obligation, but also believes that the coming of the Shia Messiah – also known as the hidden Imam or Mahdi – can be enforced by bringing about global conflict. When Ahmadinejad spoke to the General Assembly of the UN about the coming of the Mahdi and his reign of universal peace, his word should be interpreted within this apocalyptical messianic context; a context which virtually went unnoticed by western political commentators and human rights activists. Even though to Iranian clerical standards the positions held by Ahmadinejad and his circle of advisors are deemed radical, if not heretical, and have been suppressed by previous regimes, they are now nonetheless at the center of the current circle of power. This situation of a militant dictatorship fueled by apocalyptic messianism should sound familiar to our ears. 

On the side of the demonstrators, the earliest demands of free and fair elections hardened after the disillusionment in any regime cooperation. In the later months of the protest one could even see pictures of Khomeini being burned on the streets and calls for a secular Republic became louder. This is no longer about or only about free and fair elections; it has become a demonstration in part for a fundamental change in the nature of the regime. In a sense, there is no way back from this point. It either ends with the abolition of the Islamic regime or with the bloody repression of the Green Movement. 

Now, I don’t want to sound apocalyptical, and I would like to point out the bright side of these developments. The coup in 2009 has shown that the Iranian government is not a monolithicl entity, rather it has shown that the regime has significant internal dissent.  Dissent is not only existent within the ranks of the state, but as we have seen, extends to society and the clergy as well.

Firstly, leading Islamic clerics, such as the late Ayatollah Montezeri, Ayatollah Sonay and Ayatollah Sistani, have already declared that the current oppression of the Iranian people constitutes un-Islamic behaviour and cannot take place within the context of an Islamic state. The gravity of such a statement cannot be overestimated.

Secondly, with over 70% of Iranians being under the age of 30 and generally very well-educated, especially compared to surrounding countries, the demographics of Iran are such that the future of Iran truly lies in the hands of the youth. Unemployment, continuing boycotts and growing frustration with the lack of liberties has given rise to broad discontent among this large group of youth. Of course, use of the internet and modern communication technologies is predominantly the domain of these youths and Iran is no exception. Although Iran ranks as one of the countries with the lowest amount of internet traffic due to state-imposed speed limitations, Iran does support the largest number of bloggers, thus giving evidence to a tremendous amount of political involvement from the younger part of the population. So unless the regime is able and willing to resort to the sort of terror against its own population that would be akin to the days of Khomeini, it is hard to see how these demographic and political developments can be wasted by the regime.

Thirdly, and I think this is a very important point, the pillars of repression on which the regime relies have also shown significant signs of disintegration. In the last few months, purges within the revolutionary guard and army have shown that even within these pillars of the regime, dissent is brooding. Due to the open refusal of some elements of the revolutionary guard, whose core function is to safeguard the Islamic character of the state to open fire on the demonstrators, Ahmadinejad has had to resort to importing devotees of the regime from Hezbollah and Hamas to aid in a bloody repression of the pro-democracy demonstrations. In this context, I feel it morally imperative to point out that this has not been opposed by a number of human rights organizations. This concludes the political overview but I thought it important that you have a little bit of background information to our work on the technical field.Shortly after the start of the demonstrations, a twitter user by the name of ‘Persian Kiwi’ – I didn’t invent that name, that’s his work – whom we validated as being authentic, spread the number of reports on June 24th. This is one of the things that brought many people that I know into action. When you read these reports, these were all written in one day. Especially the last one was very chilling and quite shocking to us and urged us to take action. After the last message, we never heard from this person again or anyone on twitter heard from him again, and me and a couple of friends started to think, okay, what can we do?

As Dr Martin Luther King once said, “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Whilst internet freedom, as Mr Borstein from Google earlier today stated, is not the end-all and be-all of communication, it is the most sophisticated and easily available means of communication. I agree with him that we should not see it as a utopian vision of the role of the internet that’s going to bring democracy worldwide. But, having said that, this form of communication touches upon the foundation of democratic ideals, and even more fundamentally, it touches upon the ideal of the political.

So how do you resist? How do you help people in Iran at such a moment in time? In our opinion, the internet and modern communication technologies are pivotal in facilitating this possibility of supporting people in other countries, even though their regimes try to block every access to that country. Starting a few days after the election, we began a program called “iproxy Iran.” The idea was that since it was the summer, a lot of companies had servers running, institutions had servers, universities had servers running that were not being used, so they had a lot of access bandwidth. Now, the idea was that since the Iranian government was blocking access to the internet, we might provide the people of Iran with so-called proxies using the access bandwidth of Dutch servers. 

Here you see an analysis of internet traffic following the day of the coup. You can see a sharp decline where the Iranian government decided to slow down internet traffic almost to a halt and after that, it slowly creeps up, mainly because the Iranian government is dependent on the same internet connection as the opposition is. So we started this idea of lobbying civil society in Holland for proxies.

The initial reaction was very positive, but more importantly, the legal reaction was far more important. We were contacted by a number of political parties in the Dutch government about what to do, how we can help the people in Iran, and we suggested to them four different motions, which the entire parliament adopted and is now part of our Dutch legislation. These include that it is now, in Holland, forbidden to deliver surveillance technology to Iran – the same surveillance technology that makes it possible for the Iranian regime to know what you are text messaging, to whom you’re doing it, what your email is, what kind of internet pages you’re looking at. This technology is now outlawed in Holland, you cannot sell it to them. Secondly, we gain about a subsidy of a million euros to develop anti-filter technology. We lobbied in the United States with our co-partners over there, that resulted in the adoption of the Voice Act, which released 20 million dollars for the development of internet filter-breaker software. And very recently, the European Parliament has voiced its massive support for a Europe-wide ban on the sale of surveillance technology. So these are quite unexpectedly large successes in the legal and political field.

Now let’s turn to the actual use of the internet and telecommunication in the Green Movement. What we’re basically facing is a weapons race between the Green Movement and the Iranian regime. It’s a cat-and-mouse game of who has the latest technology and who knows how to outsmart the other person. It all started with providing proxies, which I just mentioned, but a proxy is actually a very limited weapon in your arsenal – it only allows you to look at a website safely, but it doesn’t allow you to post anything, no youtube videos, no messages, and is therefore of limited use if you’re trying to mobilize people for a demonstration. Furthermore, the Iranian government proved very good in shutting down the proxies within a matter of days, sometimes even hours. So what we did, or people we work with did, was develop software that allowed you to break the filters of the government and the benefit of these filters was that you could go to websites, you could even post something, and it would be open longer than proxies. But eventually, the Iranian government managed to close these down. The most current development is that we now have filter-breakers that not only allow you to post things, but you can also post it on Facebook, on Youtube, on Twitter, actually opening up the whole system from within; you can use it from Iran.

Another technology that partners of ours have developed, is a technology by which you can make a video with your mobile phone and it is immediately uploaded to the internet. You do not have to go home, login to your own home PC, which encapsulates the risk of you being identified, but it is immediately anonymously uploaded to the internet. It is thanks to technologies such as these that Nadar became the symbol of the Green Movement within the space of one day. Amazingly, it was not due to any central coordination, not due to the support of the state, but the spontaneous adoption by all those who support the Green Movement in Iran and outside. 

I will follow, or close, with the work we are currently doing. My foundation is no longer focused on the IT aspects of this whole endeavour, we are not IT specialists, we are not software developers, we are a lobby organisation of volunteers within the legal profession and academic profession – our contacts lie within governments. What we do is we bring Iranian groups together who have good ideas but do not know how to effectuate them or how to get funding, and that brought us to the following;

This is what we’re working on right now and we’re in a very late stage of development. On the one hand, on the left, you see our European and American branch, which is basically focused on lobbying for legislation, talking to parliamentarians, advising politicians. This is what we do. On the other hand, we facilitate Iranian groups, people from within the Green Movement itself, that come to us and say, “we have a wonderful idea, can you help us bring this to the attention of politicians?”

The largest one of [the propositions] is a TV station called Azadi Television, and it is aimed at the Green Movement, it’s developed by people from the Green Movement and made by the Green Movement. One of the most important things that they said to us is: “Listen, the divide within the Green Movement is as follows; there are people who want to keep the Islamic character of Iran and there are people who are secular. But most people do not know what secular means, they have no education in this field. They think if you name the term secular, you’re talking about drugs, sex and rock and roll and throwing the Quran out the window.” Of course, this is nonsense, this is not true, but this is the propaganda of Ahmadinejad and it’s working. So this television station will try to educate people on what is freedom of religion, what is freedom of expression. Can you be a Muslim in Iran? Will Iran still be an Islamic country? Very important. Secondly, it will also show the people in a very practical way what democracy is by inviting all the people from the political spectrum in Iran to have their say.

The conclusion is that this would not have been possible at all without the internet, without internet communication, sites like Facebook, Youtube, that uploaded the videos of Nadar. We’ve been working with people from all over the world on a completely spontaneous basis and we hope that this project will be the next step in supporting the Green Movement. 

Thank you.

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