Naeimeh Eshraghi, the granddaughter of modern Iran’s premier ayatollah, is on Facebook. You can’t be her friend – she’s got enough of those already.
It’s not that Eshraghi is anti-social. She’s simply reached the 5,000 friend-limit on her personal profile, making her pretty popular for a country where Facebook is technically illegal.
Eshraghi was clearly devoted to her grandfather, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who took over Tehran following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and ruled until his death ten years later. The banner image on Eshraghi’s Facebook profile shows the two of them sitting on a sofa, smiling affectionately at each other. But she doesn’t let that filial reverence stop her from criticizing the current Iranian regime, which is now ruled by another Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei.
Eshraghi told the Telegraph that increasingly strict internet regulations in Iran are only hindering progress in the theocratic republic.
“My grandfather's system of spiritual guidance of the government rested its legitimacy on people's consent. Today this theory of government has split many sections of our society from the regime and has led to a deviation from the earlier right path of the revolution,” she said.
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“It is high time that the government of Iran resorted to practicing democracy and refrained from confronting individuals and non-government groups. It should stop fearing the transfer of new communications technology.”
Like millions of other Iranians, Eshraghi gets around Tehran’s web blockages via well-worn tech tricks like Virtual Private Networks and international servers. But even this descendant of theocratic royalty fears that she might someday be targeted by Iran’s repressive regime.
“Not only am I concerned that the security forces may one day knock on my door, but also in fact think that it is quite possible that this may happen and then I would not be different from many other prominent free-thinkers of our country who have ended up being in jail,” she said.
Iran got serious about restricting internet freedoms following the Green Movement of 2009, a failed protest that erupted in response to the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now serving his second term. Angry demonstrators suspected a rigged vote, and months of turmoil followed.
More than 5,000 demonstrators were arrested, and dozens lost their lives.
The internet had been a key communication tool for these angry young Iranians, so it was no surprise when the regime took swift action to rein in the World Wide Web after the Green Movement had been subdued.
Dissent still bubbles just beneath the surface of Iranian life, especially among young citizens. More than 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old – too young to have memories of the 1979 overthrow that brought about the age of the ayatollahs, and just young enough to be very good at navigating internet restrictions. About 14 million Iranians have Facebook profiles, according to U.S. estimates.
Today, times are tough for young Iranians -- especially with the sanctions that have been imposed on the country due to Tehran's pursuit of nuclear technology. With the economy in shambles, costs of living on the rise and unemployment reaching new heights, Iran's youth are struggling now more than ever.
Eshraghi is just one of many who believe that Tehran should go easy on the restrictions so that Iranians of all stripes can communicate more freely and, eventually, come up with collective solutions to the country’s endemic problems.
Her ideas might be catching on. It seems Ayatollah Khamenei himself might have just inaugurated a Facebook page of his own, even posting an old photograph of the current Supreme Leader as a young man, standing next to Khomeini.
That’s an odd development, but for Eshraghi, any signs of increased connectivity in Iran are encouraging.
“It is only when this happens and we have free and widespread communications and the opening up of our borders to the outside world, both geographically and socially, that we can secure the progress and prosperity of Iran,” she said.