Iran’s so-called "national Internet" will be launched in either in late May or June, according to an announcement by Iranian Telecommunications Minister Reza Taghipour.
Speaking on February 20 at a cyber-defense forum in Tehran, Taghipour said the national Internet is one of the steps Iran is taking toward creating infrastructures aimed at boosting its cyber-defense capabilities.
Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Taghipour as saying, "Supporting local software and creating secure communication infrastructure are among the most important strategic decisions in the field of cyber defense, and in this regard the first phase of this network will become operational in the month of Khordad" -- the third month of the Iranian civil calendar, which begins in May and ends in June.
Iranian officials have been promising to launch a national Internet since at least 2006. But they have provided little details about its scope, which has stoked fears that it could cut off citizen’s access to the World Wide Web.
Iran already has one of the world’s toughest Internet censorship regimes, routinely blocking thousands of websites deemed immoral or threatening to the country’s national security.
Webmail Accounts Blocked
On February 20, for the second time in recent weeks, web users in Iran reported that their access to Gmail, Yahoo mail, and HTTPS websites had been blocked.
Some Iranians told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the usual antifiltering tools they had been using in the past to access blocked websites, were not working anymore.
A few users contacted by RFE/RL on February 21 said they managed to access their Gmail accounts, while others complained that they still couldn’t access their mails and some websites.
The reason for the Internet disruption is not clear, and officials have failed to clarify the issue.
There has been speculation that the recent disruptions are related to the launch of the national Internet.
It could also be a measure by Iranian authorities to prevent opposition calls for an election boycott ahead of the March 2 parliamentary poll.
The disruptions have been criticized by citizens, political websites based inside the country as well as some officials, including lawmaker Ali Tavakoli who has warned that the establishment will pay a price for it.
'A Tool For Color Revolutions'
On February 21, Taghipour said that the Internet cannot be trusted and, by its global nature, represents a threat.
"Today we see that the Internet has been a very powerful tool, which has been used in color revolutions," he said.
Taghipour also alleged that Google shares information with the United States' Central Intelligence Agency.
His comments echoed warnings by other Iranian officials who have claimed that Western intelligence agencies use social media, including Google+, to gather information for their spying activities.
Speaking at the same cyber-defense forum as Taghipour, the commander of the country's police, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, maintained that Iran's connection to the world should not be more than necessary.
"Why should we use services, including email, which are based in countries such as the [United State]." he asked.
He said it would be much better if those services were based inside Iran, and offered assurances that the national Internet will not deprive Iranians of access to the World Wide Web.
"That’s not the case," he said. "The relationship with the outside [world] should be as needed."
The comments by Taghipour and Ahmadi Moghadam reflect the Iranian regime's difficult relationship with the Internet, which it uses for its own purposes -- including business and propaganda -- while simultaneously trying to prevent citizens from accessing it freely.
Now it appears more restrictions could be on the horizon.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari