Iran’s weapons may be quite different from those being negotiated in Switzerland. The nuclear program is far less vital to Iran’s future and well-being than access and favorable positioning in the world of e-commerce. For too long now the West has been traumatized by the potential threat of nuclear Iran, and I don’t want to make light of it, but for Iran nuclear is more useful as a threat than as a reality. In the meantime finding an avenue to regional leadership over e-commerce would be the real prize.
Iran first connected to the internet in January 1992 on a single leased line to the University of Vienna… in Austria. By 1995 the Iranian network was growing rapidly and some students gained access through dial-up. By using satellite dishes coffee house access was established in the biggest cities, which made uncensored news from outside Iran available. By 2000 there were so many private Iranian websites offering information from abroad that the Iranian government imposed censorship laws on internet use in Iran. The game of open and closed digital networks had begun.
That law put the government exclusively in charge of all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) everywhere in Iran. All ISP and satellite dish access required license from the government. In order to get a license each service provider had to install filters which allowed the government to block any websites they wanted to block. As a result immoral and political sites were cut away from Iranian viewers. The Ministry of Information coordinates reviews and censure of sites that are designated by the The Supreme Council of Virtual Space as outside the law.
Iran is committed to a public internet, which is constructed, marketed and operated by companies that compete to satisfy the governments specifications: companies like Shatel, Afranet, ParsOnline, Sepanta and Neda Rayaneh. Shatel Group of Companies is the largest internet company in Iran. The entire network is controlled through one central intranet, called Halal, which means religiously acceptable. The shift away from the global internet started at coffee net locations, which were usually dependent on satellite dish broadcasting. In order to rein in free foreign access at these places the government set up cameras and collected detailed personal information on customers. As Halal intranet has progressed, many Iranians find technical ways to circumvent the censorship.
At the very heart of the Iranian system is content-control software SmartFilter, developed by Secure Computing of San Jose, California, who say the software is being used illegally without a license. Iran is accused of censoring more internet sites than any other country except China. The way around the software is by using proxy servers that act as intermediaries between the central filters and the final users. As the Iranian government catches up with the proxies, the proxy operators change their website and begin all over.
The Iranian people are a merchant culture and the government has no problem with commerce. E-commerce in Iran has its own unique flavor due to the blocking of many external servers. In 2012 Iran hosted their first regional conference on facilitating e-commerce. The second conference was held in 2013 and countries from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East attended. Iran is attempting to position itself as a central e-commerce leader for Muslim countries who have no problem with religiously driven censorship. Countries like, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey and Iran are all members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), where e-commerce is promoted.
Right now Iran is under strict economic sanctions by Europe and the US, but what happens when the sanctions are lifted? Iran’s e-commerce is picking up. In August the third Internet Marketing and Branding Conference was hosted in Tehran. According to Hosein Zeinivand, one of Iran’s pioneers of e-commerce, “E-commerce is a global phenomenon, the modern infrastructure for business is based on e-commerce today, and even now considering advances in mobile phone technology we’re seeing the global trend is heading towards m-commerce and that’s what our businesses should focus on.” Iran’s e-commerce grew from $4 billion in 2005 to $10 billion in 2011, so there’s every reason to see Iran as an attractive market. Speakers at the event included Yahoo executives and members of Bing’s Advertising Advisory Board.
In the mean time, e-commerce sites are going up in Iran, offering services from long-standing businesses run by craftsmen and artisans. Persian rugs, hand-made shoes, fine tailoring are all seeking ways to adopt a digital presence that reaches beyond the local and national boarders. For now the problem is the international trade sanctions in place against Iran, but how long will they last and how creative will other businesses in Europe and the U.S. be as they find ways to interact with Iranian artisans and craft businesses? In the meantime, the Iranian digital community —those who know about internet marketing, branding and have online savvy are busy teaching their skills to their countrymen who are new to the fast paced and ever-changing ways of e-commerce.
Commerce Or Weapons – Really?
What are the chances the United States and Iran find common ground instead of continual animosity? Certainly many geopolitical realities that previously limited the likelihood of a workable relationship arising between these two countries are now changed. Iran’s relationship with Syria is undermined by Syria’s civil war. The United States relationship with Saudi Arabia is modified by the new domestic US oil and gas resurgence. And, the possibility that Iran’s nuclear program has all along been intended to be more of a Iranian bargaining chip than weapons reality is also a consideration. George Friedman and Stratfor have argued this possibility for the last year or more. All of these pieces are in motion as the United States and Iran talk about how to handle Iran’s nuclear efforts. The real point of interest here is that there is genuine talking between the two countries along with European countries.
Behind the diplomatic efforts there’s another feature of the Iranian situation that gets little attention but plays a more significant role than many people realize. Iran, like all Muslim cultures is a trading culture. The entire Islamic religion and culture was built around trading. When you look through the Koran you find references to caravans and trade. Iran’s contemporary interest in trade are long founded and of significance. Arranging an internet posture that allows the most control over trade is more important to the long-term economic and political interests in both Iran and the United States than maintaining an ideological standoff. The chances of commercial opportunities opening up between the global internet and the censored Iranian intranet are very real. Perhaps even likely.
As negotiations between Iran and the U.S and Europeans continue, it’s realistic to consider just how the West will interact with Iran’s growing e-commerce community. By setting up an independent intranet structure and by hosting e-commerce events for a larger Middle Eastern Islamic community, Iran is positioning itself to open up a trade network that can interact with the West and shut out the West as circumstances arise. In essence the structure is optimal for Iran to enter into ongoing interactions and negotiations with the larger world of e-commerce. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that in the posturing for negotiations e-commerce has more significance for the Iranian people and possibly the government than the nuclear program. Maybe the nuclear program was more of a game, taken from the North Korean playbook, to help posture commercial opportunities and online positioning as the long political freeze begins to thaw.