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The Internet Links Iranians to a World Without Borders


TEHRAN — Computer entrepreneur Nasser Saadat's three sisters and two brothers live abroad, but he still manages to keep in touch. Even though he lives in Iran, he sometimes chats with his sister in Florida for two hours at a time. He can also tune in to the same radio stations that she hears in the United States.

How is this possible in a country whose testy international relations have kept it largely isolated?

"Through the Internet," explained Saadat, whose Neda Rayaneh Institute sells Net access to about 200 Iranian companies. "It is like having my sister here. So where is the border?"

It used to be that individuals dissatisfied with conditions at home had to go abroad. In today's wired world, they can go online.

Even in Iran, the Internet is winning enthusiasts, especially among young people discouraged by hard economic realities and hankering for contact with the outside world.

There has been a boomlet in private Internet service providers--from two to about a dozen. The country's first cybercafe, Future Road, is opening near Tehran University. At Iran's International Trade Fair last month, students lined up to try 30 terminals offering free Internet access. For many, it was a long-awaited first chance to sample the World Wide Web.

The cost of computers and a fee of about $100 a month to Internet providers tend to limit access to the affluent. Download speeds are limited by poor-quality phone lines. But computers are fairly common in offices, schools and companies.

For those who manage to link up, the Internet is a way to maintain ties with friends and relatives, troll for business or hunt foreign employment and study opportunities. It helps them surmount the political, economic and cultural isolation imposed on Iran by the United States and by Iran's often problematic relations with other countries.

Saadat uses the Web's audio capabilities to cut the high cost of calling the United States.

Even though the Islamic government closely monitors the arts and media, Iran has no legislated barrier to Web access. Nevertheless, those promoting the Internet understand the need for caution.

Saadat voluntarily "filters" Web sites involving pornography, alcohol or those calling for the overthrow of the Islamic regime. "You can teach people to use it in a good way or in a bad way," he said of the Internet.

"We're kind of lucky to have gotten as far as we have," said Berkeley-trained Siavash Shahshanani of Iran's Institute of Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, who helped obtain Iran's initial Internet connection in 1993. "We stayed low key, and before anyone knew it, the Internet was here."

Advocates of the Internet had to overcome suspicion at home and from the West.

Shahshanani told of a cleric known for condemning the Western cultural invasion who demanded to see how to download a picture. Connections were balky, so it took Shahshanani 15 minutes to capture half the image, a Time magazine cover. The impatient cleric left, convinced that the Iranian state had nothing to fear.

Until 1995, the entire Internet "backbone" was controlled by the U.S. government, and any new link by another country required approval from Washington. One key individual at the National Science Foundation was opposed to Iran's participation, raising fears of espionage or computer sabotage. Others argued the benefit of giving Iranians access to unfettered information.

Tony Rutkowski, a founder of the Internet Society, was on the pro side of that controversy. "What I was able to do, quietly behind the scenes, was to make the case for getting them connected because it facilitated opening up the country," he recalled.

Many Iranians are glad that his argument prevailed.

At the trade fair's Internet booth last month, Faradad Kordmahaleh, an Iranian American from Portland, Ore., had no doubts about the Web's potential to change Iran. "There are thousands and thousands of people here. And why are they here?" he asked. "Because they want to be connected to what is going on outside--they want to be connected any way they can."

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