A battle is raging within Iran's political leadership over a form of Internet communication known as a blog, a "weblog" that combines a publicly accessible online personal diary and a guide to other links on the World Wide Web. Some elements of the Iranian government have been supportive of the free and rapid development of blogging in Iran, while hard-liners in the Judiciary are trying to figure out how to control it.
Hossein Derakhshan, 30, is an Iranian who emigrated to Canada four-years ago. In 2002, he developed a simple way for people to use Persian language on the Internet, which led to the creation of an independent service in Tehran called Persianblog.com.
"After few months, Persianblog.com launched its service and started with a fully Persian interface, in very simple language, to help Iranian people to start blogging. And it was a turning point for the Iranian blogosphere because, thanks to the ease of service and the easy interface of Persianblog.com, many, many people who were not very familiar with technical issues on the Net were able to start blogging."
Persianblog.com estimates there are now as many as 70,000 active Persian language blogs, both inside and outside Iran. These sites had basically been allowed to operate freely, until Iran's Judiciary began an Internet crackdown several-months ago.
The apparent targets, according to Mr. Derakhshan, are blogs and websites with political content. But he says most of the Persian language blogs did not start out focusing on political issues.
"A lot of them are just tools to facilitate dating, which is very important now in Iran, because there are not official dating services, or any official easy way for young people to socialize and to find new friends, new dates, and stuff like that," he noted.
Mr. Derakhshan says the Judiciary's attempt to block access to several of the main blogging services used by Iranians, such as Persianblogger.com, blogspot.com and blogger.com, means that many of the existing blogs are turning political, even when they did not start out that way.
"It is very obvious that because of the censorship that has been stepped up recently, many of these weblogs that are not normally about politics or political issues have started to become political, just because the censorship doesn't even allow them to see their weblogs or even easily continue blogging," he added.
The conflict over the development of Internet communication in Iran reflects a larger struggle between elements within the government that support it and factions that are alarmed by the Internet's relative freedom.
This point is emphasized by Farideh Farhi, an independent Iranian-American scholar affiliated with the University of Hawaii. She compares what she calls Iran's "haphazard" attempts to control the Internet to the relatively more unified response in a country like China, which consistently blocks Internet sites Beijing deems offensive.
"And if you look at China, if I remember correctly, they responded to this Internet boom in a very consistent and immediate manner, filtering very early on,” she explained. “In the case of Iran, that has not been the case because so much of the political structure is divided and decentralized. And that gives tremendous amount of space to a lot of activities that are going on in the society."
In recent months, the Iranian authorities made several much publicized arrests of activists labeled as bloggers, but released them after a brief detention.
"Their arrest was publicized,” she added. “Everybody knew about it. And then they came out. They had their lamentations, their statements of regret."
But, Ms. Farhi says, the released prisoners told a former vice-president, who is a blogger, that authorities tortured them.
"So, that came out in a blog by the former vice-president. Everybody knows about it. So, it is a very, very funny situation, where both the activity is not fully allowed, yet at the same time, it somewhat goes on. And then, the repression of it is also well-publicized. That is what gives Iran a very interesting dynamic,” she noted.
Ms. Farhi says she believes hard-liners won't be able to control the Internet forever.
"The kind of activities that are going on in Iran are so strong and they have such a large audience, and there is such desire for it, and also, you have this reality that there are people within the government structure that do not like the kind of activities that the Judiciary is involved in. And that is why you see resistance and complaint," she said.
The chill on blogging in Iran may not be permanent, but it is having some effect. An Iranian journalist contacted in Iran refused to discuss blogging and bloggers.
In an e-mail, he said it would be risky for him to be interviewed about what he said has recently become a heavily-politicized issue. He said he could be jailed for giving an interview to an American journalist.