Only North Korea, Cuba and the Kashmir border area of India and Pakistan can beat out Iran in a contest for the world’s slowest Internet speed. For anyone who’s visited Iran – a hustling, bustling place, never prone to the laid-back, skittish inertia of its Arab neighbors – and has met the average Iranian citizen, this truly is a major source of embarrassment. Having presented itself as the secular and religious leader of the Moslem world, Iran finds itself portrayed as a sort of custard-pie-in-the-face, backward-ass joke because the simplest, most innocuous email message may take three full days to go from one side of Tehran to another, or a week to reach Tabriz.
“It’s like a sunflower slowly popping up out of a field of fertilizer,” an old photographer friend, Nissam, informed me by email. “Every email is analyzed by a board of censors. After they’ve run it through a decoder, transposed, transmogrified and recombined it, then they let it through. This is not very practical!”
But now there’s President Hassan Rouhani. The architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons and energy program, reborn as a ‘liberal reformer,’ he has the ear of the US President Barack Obama and his desperately ambitious billionaire Secretary of State, John Kerry. Although his sincerity is definitely in doubt, the need for his country to modernize is clear, with a population of 77m (of 72% of which is under 25) projected to reach 105m by 2050, and most of the goods it produces caught in an embargo because its government supports and supplies terrorist networks throughout the world. Iran’s ruling class must change if it hopes to retain the support of its youthful population. So, as one sop, by the end of March, Rouhani’s government has promised that average bandwidth will double.
Although Rouhani is the leader of a paranoid police state, he has acknowledged in a number of interviews that those restrictions are counterproductive barriers to Internet commerce. Iran has by far the highest total number of Internet users in the Middle East. More than 50% of all Iranian households have access. Yet it takes hours to download a video clip or access an online bank account. Worse, three or four times a day, Internet access is disrupted by unexplained service interruptions.
Rouhani’s officials, however, insist that Internet speeds have accelerated by 30 percent since last summer. By March 2015, officials pledge, bandwidth will have expanded tenfold. One thing is for sure, Rouhani’s whole apparatus of elected and appointed bureaucrats have promised big and will lose a lot of face if their claims that citizens in even the smallest villages will be able to do their shopping, pay bills online and arrange the delivery of packages don’t become easier.
Iran already has more than 20,000 active online stores, all of which have paid government officials for official licensing. A major player is Iran’s Center for E-Commerce Development. They sell electronic retail licenses, to an applicant pool of which 70 percent are younger than 30, according to The Washington Post. Thus, in a country where at least 26% of its youth are currently unemployed, the government itself holds the e-business key to saving itself.
Meanwhile, a group of more than 20 of Iran’s largest online stores have formed an American-style coalition to lobby the government on issues such as making online shopping tax-free, cracking down on fraudulent sites, raising bandwidth and protecting consumer interests. To reduce online fraud, Iran’s central bank will stop accepting transactions from unlicensed Web sites at the beginning of the new Iranian year in March.
Currently, about $300,000 in online sales is officially tallied each day, but those figures will skyrocket once new regulations are implemented and all transactions are tracked. The sky is, comparatively, the limit… in that farmers who have for thousands of years gathered all their crops and taken them into the closest city and been dependent on capricious market prices set by greedy government officials, can now count on receiving a particular pre-bargained price after bartering in advance thanks to the Internet.