The government of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi has been accused of secretly implementing controversial draft legislation that would intensify online censorship and limit Internet access.
Now, it has emerged that a family member of one of Raisi's vice presidents emigrated to Canada and created a company that sells virtual private networks (VPNs), which many Iranians use to bypass state censorship of the Internet.
The revelation has triggered criticism and calls for the vice president to resign.
The parliament, dominated by hard-liners, has been trying to pass a draft bill that would hand control of Iran's Internet gateways to the armed forces and criminalize the use of VPNs.
In a series of tweets on September 7, Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Ensieh Khazali denied that her son, Hamid Rezazadeh, had moved to Canada. She said her son's "temporary" trip was aimed at furthering "knowledge-based" research. That was a reference to the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in March dedicated the new Persian year to "knowledge-based productivity" and job creation.
But Iranian social media users were quick to challenge her claim by posting a screen grab of Rezazadeh's profile on Rocketreach.co, a website that contains the contact information of millions of professionals worldwide.
Rezazadeh's profile says he is the chief executive officer and founder of Betternet.co, a Vancouver-based company that sells VPNs.
RFE/RL was not able to access Rezazadeh's profile on Rocketreach.co. It appeared to have been deleted but a cached version remained available online.
Digital security firm Aura, the parent company of Betternet.co, said in emailed comments to RFE/RL that "there is not currently, nor has there ever been, an employee by the name of Hamid Rezazadeh at Betternet." It said the profile on Rocketreach.co was "fake."
Mehdi Khazali, the vice president’s brother and a blogger, told RFE/RL that his nephew is the founder of a Canada-based company that sells VPNs. But he did not reveal the name of the company.
Rezazadeh was involved in the field of information technology in Iran and praised by state TV as an exemplary entrepreneur.
"It is not right for someone's parents to favor [online] filtering in Iran while he works abroad in the field of VPNs," Mehdi Khazali was quoted as saying by Iranian media on September 11.
Mehdi Khazali told RFE/RL that a son and daughter of his other sister, Kobra Khazali, who chairs the women's commission of the conservative-dominated Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, have been living in the United States for several years.
The controversy over Rezazadeh has led some Iranians to call for Ensieh Khazali's resignation.
In an op-ed issued in the reformist Etemad daily on September 11, lawyer Ali Mojtahedzadeh accused Ensieh Khazali of "misleading" the public.
"It became clear that [Khazali's] son has been living in Canada for the past three years and that he's been active in the field of VPNs," he wrote. "Does the vice president consider the production of anti-filtering tools as a 'knowledge-based' activity, particularly if this government has been taking very strict measures regarding the Internet?" Mojtahedzadeh asked.
Privileged Children Of The Elite
The revelations about Rezazadeh have led to renewed criticism of the so-called "aghazadehs," a term used by Iranians to describe the privileged children of the elite who are thought to benefit greatly from connections and family ties, including for access to top jobs and state contracts.
Iranian officials who have sent their children to study and work in Europe and North America even as they blast the West have attracted controversy.
"Society sees the hypocrisy and contradictions in state officials constantly attacking the West and talking continuously about the crisis in the West...but at the same time, some of their children prefer life in Western countries," Tehran-based sociologist Mohammad Jalaeipur said in a September 11 post on Telegram.
Last week, the head of the government's information council, Mahdi Arafati, quoted Raisi as saying that if the children of Iranian officials move abroad then their parents should leave the country too. Arafati said Raisi's comments came following reports that the child of a deputy minister received a foreign visa and was planning to leave the country.
Earlier this year, an official with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) claimed that up to 4,000 relatives of senior government officials lived in North America and Europe. General Morteza Miri said the individuals should be "monitored" so they do not have access to senior posts in the Islamic republic in the future.
The son of a former vice president, Masumeh Ebtekar, who served as a spokeswoman for the Islamic students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, is among the children of Iranian officials who live and study in the United States.
"Many have studied in the U.S., which does not necessarily mean support for U.S. policies," Ebtekar claimed in an interview in 2018. "Young people's views may not be fully in line with their parents."