Iran's Ministry of Communication recently announced that it will give more mobile providers licenses for high-speed Internet services. But the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi says authorities should first introduce measures that would prevent access to the "un-Islamic" and "negative features" of the technology.
According to the news blog, Persian Letters, Shirazi posted the statement on his personal website in response to concerns voiced by a conservative activist group that Iran does not have the necessary structure to prevent the "harm" that could result from such services, including "access to immoral movies and photos," "the weakening of family structures," and "spying and the sale of the country's confidential information."
Shirazi wrote that authorities should consult with the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which formulates and oversees Iran's Internet policies including its tough online censorship. Shirazi also added that he is not against the technology in principle, but that Western technologies should be regarded as muddy unclean water. "Water is the source of life yet when it is dirty it must be refined."
As Persian Letters notes, the incident highlights the pressure President Hassan Rohani faces from hard-liners in implementing his promises to lessen online censorship and give Iranians greater access to information:
Rohani is the chairman of the SCC, the Internet body that Makarem Shirazi advised the government to consult. But the Iranian president is not the sole decision-maker in the SCC, which is dominated by conservative and hard-line members including the head of Iran's judiciary, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, and the head of state broadcasting.
The oversight body was established in 2012 following a decree by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said Iranians should be protected from the "damage" caused by the spread of information and communication technologies.
Earlier this year, Rohani said that the Internet should not be seen as something that should be feared.
"We ought to see [the Internet] as an opportunity. We must recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web," Rohani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency on May 20.
It's not the first time Makarem Shirazi has weighed in on this issue. Last year he spoke against video calls, saying they had more downsides than benefits. His latest ruling has sparked criticism online:
"We're already facing filtering. What else do you want? What kind of nonsensical question is this?" wrote an Internet user in the comments section of one of the websites that posted Shirazi's ruling.
"The Internet is as necessary as water and food," wrote another user, while someone else maintained that the Internet should be seen as a tool for progress.
"In our backward country we see only the negative sides. According to this [argument] grapes should be considered haram because they can be used to produce wine!!!" the user said.