On 1 January 2019, President Rouhani approved a vote by members of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) to appoint Professor Saied Reza Ameli as the body’s new Secretary. Iran’s Supreme Leader also demonstrated his approval and in a separate letter appointed Ameli to the SCCR on 2 January.
In recent years, the SCCR has tended only to play a very marginal role in shaping Iran’s Internet governance and infrastructure landscape. As we have outlined previously, the main players in recent years have been the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC), ICT Ministry, the judiciary, and — most importantly — the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC). However, prior to the rise of the SCC as Iran’s leading Internet policy-making body, the SCCR played an influential role in shaping internet governance in Iran.
With the rapid rise of Ameli, this could once again be the case. Ameli’s extensive experience studying the interactions between culture and the Internet, and his proactive engagement with SCC Secretary Abolhasan Firouzabadi signal that the SCCR could start to take on increasing levels of responsibility in shaping Iran’s internet governance landscape.
For many years, Ameli has been an influential scholar of the Internet and its cultural impacts, and he is highly trusted by the Iranian Supreme Leader on the topic (as evidenced by his direct appointment to the SCC in 2015). However, Ameli’s diverse expertise has made his political positions somewhat nuanced and hard to categorise cleanly alongside traditional conservatives and hardliners.
The fact that the SCCR looks set to gain greater influence over shaping the future of the Iranian internet is yet another sign that the state’s methods of control are evolving — no longer is it its regulation of online spaces dependent entirely upon reactive forms of censorship, but rather it is developing a proactive and nuanced set of policies that are reshaping citizens’ modes of producing, consuming and accessing information online.
In this edition of Filterwatch, we’ll delve deeper into the backstory of Saied Reza Ameli, and assess the extent to which he might be able to influence the development of the Internet in Iran in the coming years.
An Urgent Appointment — Ameli’s Rapid Rise in the SCCR
Ameli’s election as Secretary of the SCCR was not without controversy. The SCCR is obligated to meet fortnightly, according to the body’s official guidelines. However, in the latter months of 2018, SCCR meetings were less frequent than usual — some Iranian media commentators speculated that this was because President Rouhani had sought to replace the former SCCR Secretary Mohammad Reza Mokhber Dezfuli, but had so far failed to do so.
This was until, on 1 January 2019, Ameli was voted in as the Secretary of SCCR unopposed, with no candidates standing against him. According to reports, his candidacy was backed by both President Rouhani and the Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani. However, despite support from influential figures such as Rouhani and Larijani, and Ameli’s position of influence with the Supreme Leader, his appointment was not entirely undisputed by SCCR members.
On 2 January — the day after Ameli’s victory — former IRIB Director Ezatollah Zarghami took to Twitter to criticise the process of his election. Zarghami claimed that despite the wishes of Iran’s Supreme Leader to leave the decision to SCCR members, Vahid Haghanian — a senior member of the Supreme Leader’s office — lobbied members to vote for Ameli. In a second tweet published only hours later, Zarghami claimed that Haghanian’s actions took place without the knowledge and consent of the Supreme Leader.
In another unusual intervention, Hossein-Ali Shahriyari — a Majles Deputy and SCCR member — stated on 2 January that there were two irregularities in the election of Ameli as Secretary. Firstly, he claimed that standing orders require that the candidate(s) should not be present at the meeting — Ameli was present. His second, and more interesting objection related to the fact that Secretaries must be elected from among existing SCCR members. Ameli was appointed to SCCR by the Supreme Leader only the day after his election, in clear violation of the body’s rules.
Apart from the controversy around the election process, some conservatives outside the SCCR raised objections to Ameli’s appointment, questioning his suitability for the post. In a letter published on 2 January, Seyed Mohammad Marandi — a well known conservative academic and political analyst — hit back at critics, defending Ameli’s track record, his conservative credentials, and his commitment to the Islamic Revolution.
These SCCR members’ disquiet about his appointment went largely unnoticed by media outlets in the aftermath of his appointment, with only a handful of conservative and hardline outlets picking up on the discontent. Regardless, in the immediate aftermath of his election he met with SCC Secretary Abolhasan Firouzabadi to discuss the formation of a joint committee — potentially signalling a stepping-up in the levels of coordination between the SCC and SCCR in the area of internet governance.
A Man of the World? — Meeting Saied Reza Ameli
Saied Reza Ameli is a figure with a longstanding interest in internet policy and its effect on society. He is a faculty member at the University of Tehran, where he serves as a Professor of Communications and Vice President of Planning and Information Technologies.
Just as many other members of the SCCR, Ameli has received his higher education in universities located outside Iran. He has a MA in Sociology of Communications from University College of Dublin, and holds a PhD in Sociology of Communications from Royal Holloway, University of London where his research topic was “The Impact of Globalisation on British Muslim Identity”.
However, Ameli is unusual in the sense that British public records show he still has some financial interests in the country. According to his record on the UK’s Companies House database, he is a director of Sydney Estates Ltd. The company was established on 22 January 2016 and he is one of five current Directors, none of whom appear to be Iranian nationals. According to the same document, his son Abbas Ameli-Renani — an emerging market debt and currencies portfolio manager at Amundi Asset Management — was his witness when he founded the company.
As a member of the SCC for a number of years, Ameli has regularly commented on the state of Internet governance in Iran. While his comments and interventions are often rooted in conservative fears of an open and accessible internet, his positions have typically been more nuanced and with a longer view than many other conservatives. On 19 October 2016 — after his appointment to the SCC — he said in an interview that social networks deliver more benefits than harms for society. But he insisted on the need for regulation, stating that filtering was necessary but insufficient to assert control over Iran’s online environment.
On 28 September 2018 Ameli complained that the National Information Network (SHOMA) has been wrongly labelled as the ‘National Internet’ — On 28 September 2018 Ameli said that SHOMA (National Information Network) has been misunderstood, and its widespread labelling as the “National Internet” has been damaging. Ameli insisted that the project is about protecting domestic data, in this sense hitting back at some conservatives that criticised SHOMA for not resulting in a fully segregated national intranet.
In the short time since his appointment as SCCR Secretary, Ameli has made a number of comments about the future of the Internet in Iran, signalling that the body may take on a greater role in shaping Iranian cyberspace in the years ahead.
On 13 January he appeared in an hour-long discussion programme with the CDICC Secretary Firouzabdi on the subject of the internet, once again signalling that he will play a growing role in future discussions about the Internet in Iran. During the programme, he insisted that Iran’s development of proactive and long-term cyberspace policies could turn internet access into an opportunity rather than a threat to the Islamic Republic. During the programme, Ameli strongly argued for data protectionism, and argued that the fact that Iranian citizens’ search data is held by Google constitutes a threat to Iran.
On 9 March 2019, at the fifth ‘Clean National Cyberspace Gathering’, Ameli cited China as an example of a country successfully fighting back against US dominance cyberspace. In his speech, he criticised Iranian officials for using Twitter despite the platform being filtered. Interestingly, Ameli warned against duplicating ‘liberal values’ incorporated in the design of Telegram in any replacements, stating that Iranian-designed messaging apps must reflect religious values.
Cultural Shifts — What Ameli’s Appointment Might Mean For Internet Policy
Currently, it is too early to definitively assess the effect of Ameli’s appointment on Internet policy in Iran. However, on the basis of his fast-tracked appointment process, his background, and the comments made since his appointment, it is possible to imagine several scenarios in which his appointment could significantly shape the future of the internet in Iran.
The most plausible possibility is a greater role for the SCCR on shaping components of SHOMA unrelated to infrastructure. Besides infrastructure development, one of SHOMA’s core pillars is the development of domestically-produced online content and services, with the objective of conditioning more inward-looking internet usage nationally.
As a result of the vast levels of investment in SHOMA over the last six years of Rouhani’s administration, we have witnessed boasts from Iranian authorities about the delivery of the project’s infrastructure components. So it is perhaps natural that the government is in the process of shifting the project’s focus towards cultural projects and digital services needed to achieve SHOMA’s objectives. A greater level of engagement from the SCCR around digital cultural policy could signal fresh increases in investment in such projects, and the start of coordinated efforts between internet policy-making bodies on cultural programmes.
This move could also represent another sign of the new consensus around internet policy in Iran. Rouhani administration officials have on a number of occasions responded to conservative critiques by signalling their willingness to invest in the creation of domestic content and online services.
This appointment could also lead to greater levels of influence for Ameli on the SCC if he maintains his position there, and is not moved on to avoid conflict with other members. After Rouhani, Firouzabadi and Sadegh Larijani, he could become the fourth most influential member of the body.
It is also possible that Ameli’s appointment could lead to further divisions at the SCC. The former head of IRIB Ezzatollah Zarghami — who criticised Ameli’s election as SCCR Secretary — is also a political appointee on the SCC. Zarghami has historically taken more culturally conservative stances on the SCC than many of Rouhani’s officials, and also has the ear of Supreme Leader Khamenei. His immediate and unusual public outburst upon Ameli’s selection may foretell further conflict around cultural policy among conservatives close to the Supreme Leader.
History Repeating Itself? — The SCCR, Universities and the Internet
There are some striking similarities between the way that the state regulated and restructured Iran’s universities in the 1980s, and the way that it is grappling with the perceived threat of the Internet today. In 1980 — just a year after the revolution — when Supreme Leader Khomeini and his allies were seeking to tighten their grip over the direction of the revolution and wider society, the universities were viewed as a real threat to the nascent Islamic Republic. They were viewed as the main organising space for left-wing activists, and many of the teachings of influential academics were not aligned with the values of Khomeini and his allies. The Cultural Revolution Headquarters (the predecessor to the SCCR) was established by Khomeini to solve this problem.
After a complete two-year shutdown of Iran’s universities, many students and faculty members were expelled by the Cultural Revolution Headquarters, and curricula were revised to reflect the perceived values and needs of the newly established Islamic Republic. 39 years later, the higher education sector in Iran is more accessible to students than ever before, and it meets the needs of the Iranian state for an educated workforce. At the same time, as a result of the state’s tight regulation, the universities do not pose the same degree of threat with regard to radical activism, nor do their curricula contain any materials that might question the underlying values of the Islamic Republic.
This is not too dissimilar to the fate of the Internet in Iran so far. The state’s fear of citizens’ growing access to undesirable information, and the ability of protesters to use online tools to organise and mobilise (most apparent in 2009) gave rise to the state’s tough censorship regime, or ‘Filternet’, which tightly controlled the flow of information online.
However after this period of closure, in recent years the vast levels of investment in SHOMA — including into core infrastructure, services, and content development — has seen the emergence of a new online environment. The new online landscape is one grounded upon the rapid expansion of internet access, and a set of policy frameworks that empower the Islamic Republic to use it for service delivery and content development in a way that benefits them.
The rise of Ameli and the re-emergence of the SCCR must also be viewed as part of this trajectory. He is one of an influential group of officials responsible for developing the policy architecture that will underpin Iran’s internet in the coming years — a group that is increasingly sensitive to the futility of centring filtering in their policy responses.
Instead, cultural protectionists and those opposed to political pluralism in Iran are reimagining a ‘Filternet without filtering’. While in their soundbites they regularly cite China as a model to be emulated, it is our expectation that this new internet will be a unique environment shaped by uniquely Iranian political and social contexts. It is our belief that digital rights activists working on Iran must start imagining the ‘filter-free’ control measures that will be deployed in the future — and in this sense, we’d argue it could be very useful to keep watching the movements of the new Secretary of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution.