Is Iran’s Information Minister the Islamic Republic’s Emmanuel Macron?
The youngest minister in Hassan Rouhani’s government is distancing himself from both conservatives and reformists—and it might be the recipe for political success in 2021.
“I’m active on Twitter to state that I don’t believe in putting limitations on social media,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s information and communications technology (ICT) minister, told me as he offered me tea and Iranian sweets on Aug. 22.
Azari Jahromi, 37, is the only minister in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet who was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Known in Iranian media as the “young minister,” he is in constant and direct contact with Iranian social media users.
That’s unusual in Iran, where a number of social networks—including Facebook and Twitter—are banned. But these constraints haven’t caused people to leave these platforms, especially Twitter, which is becoming increasingly popular. Iranians use virtual private networks and download anti-proxy applications on their phones to bypass the blocking, making VPN apps a lucrative business.
For reformists and moderates—as well as some of Rouhani’s cabinet, such as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Azari Jahromi—Instagram and the banned Twitter are two precious podiums to reach out to local and global audiences because the most pervasive media in Iran, the state TV channel Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), is controlled by conservatives and has a monopoly over radio and TV stations. IRIB sees social networks including Instagram as a threat to its influence. According to Iranian law, IRIB’s chair is named by the country’s supreme leader, and conservatives have long controlled the organization.
Until a decade ago, most observers viewed the ICT ministry as a far less powerful player—a bureaucratic backwater tasked with guarding telephone wires and monitoring internet download speeds. But that is changing. Now, the ministry has transformed into a serious economic, political, and technological force. It is in charge of preparing the infrastructure for start-ups, such as Snapp and Tap30, the Iranian equivalents of Uber with millions of users, and is also a place to trigger initiatives for unblocking websites like YouTube.
Azari Jahromi was born in Jahrom, a city in the southwestern province of Fars, where he was raised in a poor family. He lost his 16-year-old brother during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and met his future wife at the Power and Water University of Technology in Tehran, where they were both studying electrical engineering. During the interview, unlike most officials, he was direct, frank, and warm while constantly joking. He has used a similar bluntness and approachability to attract the attention of Iran’s younger generation by supporting their demand to access social networks while also naming young figures as his deputies.
In recent months, reports and rumors have emerged about Azari Jahromi’s possible bid to run in Iran’s 2021 presidential election. “I have received requests from people about running in the election, but I have never thought about this,” he told me, like a true politician. “This stems from the society’s need to see a big change soon,” he added, something that many believe will happen only if young people enter politics. “However, I haven’t still reached any conclusion on this issue,” said Azari Jahromi, as we sat in his modern office in a historical building, built in 1924, that turned into a museum two decades ago and is home to Iran’s first radio transmitter and radio station.
Azari Jahromi is seen in Iranian media as a pragmatist and has sought to distance himself from the main political currents, including reformists and hard-liners. Hard-liners are constantly clashing with him because they consider him a potential presidential candidate. In fact, they are reportedly devising plans to prevent his possible nomination—or at least discredit him among voters by creating rumors against him. But that may not succeed.
In recent years, ordinary people in Iran have become increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the reformist and conservative godfathers of Iran’s politics controlling the scenes. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, Rouhani was seriously weakened, leading his popularity to diminish as the economy started to deteriorate.
While celebrating Rouhani’s declining popularity, the hard-liners strangely assumed that voters’ dissatisfaction meant that they had succeeded in attracting the votes of ordinary people. But a significant portion of Iran’s population points a finger at hard-liners for obstructing Rouhani’s attempts to improve the economy and increase social freedom—opening a space for political newcomers.
In recent decades, any figure who has sought to launch a political career has tried to join one of the main political camps and call himself reformist or conservative. Azari Jahromi has done the opposite; he has avoided talking politics or speaking in favor of reformists or conservatives. He has tried instead to tie himself to ordinary people rather than the elites who have aroused people’s dissatisfaction in recent years.
This may be purely strategic, but it has certainly benefited him by placing him in direct dialogue with people on Instagram and Twitter, where he usually replies to a large number of people’s comments, helping him to build visibility and a fan base among voters of different persuasions—including the religious.
Azari Jahromi remains opaque about his political allegiances. “I haven’t been involved in any activities of the political groups in Iran and have been mostly focused on my job and technical matters, but this doesn’t mean that I have no political position,” he said. “I can say that on several issues I would be close to reformists and on some others to moderate conservatives. However, I have sought to be a pragmatist.”
In the first days after Rouhani nominated Azari Jahromi to the cabinet, the reformists in parliament were harshly opposed to him. They were upset because Rouhani didn’t choose his ministers in consultation with reformists. They also worried about his security background and that more restrictions might be on the way. (From 2002 to 2009, Azari Jahromi served in the Intelligence Ministry’s technical department, where he focused on cybersecurity and protecting digital infrastructure.)
Azari Jahromi has gradually managed to improve his image, prompting reformists to stand behind him in the face of hard-liners’ attacks, especially after he attempted to prevent the blocking of Instagram in Iran. (It is still accessible.) Currently, reformists are one of the main groups supporting Azari Jahromi, owing to his efforts to pave the way for people’s access to social networks.
Azari Jahromi and Rouhani came under fire from hard-liners last year after the popular messaging application Telegram was blocked by a middle-ranking judge, since the president had promised to obstruct such moves.
“The judiciary and judges are able to independently order the broadband providers to block any website they want, and for Telegram, it happened even though we were completely opposed to it,” Azari Jahromi explained. “Before banning Telegram, I was under pressure for not blocking it. … However, I was able to withstand the pressures, but the judiciary entered the field out of the blue,” he added.
The three branches of government in Iran work independently of each other, and while parliament members and the head of the executive branch are chosen by voters in elections, the judiciary chief is appointed by the supreme leader.
Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, then the head of the judiciary branch, stated at the time that “thousands of cases had been filed” against Telegram by “various people whose rights were violated on this platform.” However, it was always crystal clear that powerful hard-liners were behind this case.
Those hard-liners in parliament and the media continued their onslaught against Azari Jahromi. They believed he had secretly assigned officials to develop unblocked versions of Telegram to provide people with free access to the messaging application.
Despite the criticism, Azari Jahromi has continued to lobby in favor of keeping Instagram open in Iran while spearheading initiatives to unblock Twitter and YouTube. He has brought a number of Iran’s ministers on board, writing letters and lobbying to reach his goal, although the prosecutor general is still resisting his initiative.
Azari Jahromi has used banned social networks like Twitter to counterattack against his hard-line opponents—who are very active on Twitter despite their role in blocking it. Along with Zarif, Azari Jahromi remains a regular target of hard-liners as the two ministers have argued against the bans while revealing financial misconduct at the state broadcaster IRIB, which is controlled by ultraconservatives seeking a full monopoly over cyberspace.
State TV executives were lobbying vehemently to persuade the parliament to pass a bill that would make IRIB the only organization permitted to launch online TV or local versions of YouTube while forcing the parliament to also pass a law in favor of IRIB to share the revenue. The confrontation has been costly for Azari Jahromi as IRIB has reportedly invoked a media ban, forbidding its channels from broadcasting him.
In January, Iran’s attempt to launch the Payam (“Message”) satellite, designed to carry out imagery and telecommunication missions, failed to reach orbit amid U.S. warnings that it could also be used to launch nuclear missiles. Pushing the boundaries, Azari Jahromi announced the failure of Iran’s satellite launch on Twitter—an unusual form of government transparency. Though Iranians usually are informed of such occurrences through Western media, his move led to criticism from the old guard, given that Iran has always been secretive about its satellite program.
Azari Jahromi defended the move as a sign of government transparency. “The usual thing throughout the world is to announce the results of experiments. In our country, we may face arguments saying that no news related to failures should be released. But this tradition is not appropriate as the failure is a step towards success,” he explained. “Success requires us to pay attention to the public. When a politician shares his decision and measures with the public, he becomes enlightened by the reactions. … Any management lacking direct communication with public opinion may lead to failure.”
Azari Jahromi’s ministry used to be middle-ranking with no political heavyweights, but it has in the past decade turned into a stronghold against cyberattacks due to its cyberdefense work since 2010, when Stuxnet—a sophisticated computer worm that targeted Iran’s nuclear program in a wave of attacks that were reportedly ordered by the United States—was uncovered.
“We have repeatedly faced cyberattacks by a number of actors, especially the U.S. So far, many attempts have been made by the U.S. government to disrupt Iran’s energy, oil, and defense networks. To counter such strikes … we have established a particular department under the name of Dojfa [stronghold],” said Azari Jahromi, while denying the reports about a successful cyberattack against Iran after Tehran downed a U.S. drone in the Persian Gulf.
He has initiated a plan with Russia and China to develop a new mobile operating system amid the U.S.-China trade war, which has put the Chinese firm Huawei on Washington’s blacklist. He has also met his counterparts in Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan to establish a joint regional ICT market for economic activities in cyberspace; the creation of four Iranian-built smartphone models was the first result.
“The digital economy is the future of the world. We should reduce our oil dependency. Digital transformation is fast … and we shouldn’t miss the train,” argued Azari Jahromi, who insists Iran has high potential to be a pioneer of next-generation technology.
Despite his successes, hard-liners are still targeting Azari Jahromi, and their efforts to discredit him indicate that they are worried about his possible nomination in the 2021 presidential election. By criticizing Azari Jahromi, they may be seeking to make the conservative-dominated Guardian Council—which is tasked with vetting the presidential candidates—skeptical about him and consequently reject him.
But Azari Jahromi’s pragmatic approach and his lack of ties with the dominant political camps and elites—long considered a weakness in Iranian politics—may help make him the Emmanuel Macron of Iran, ascending to power as swiftly and unexpectedly in the next presidential election as Macron did in 2017 after leaving the Socialist Party, forming his own movement, and winning both the presidential and legislative elections.
Not being associated with either of the old camps is a new road map for ambitious candidates in Iran—and it might just pay off for Azari Jahromi in the next election.