Iran's dissenting and liberal voices, reeling from a crackdown in cyberspace by their country's old guard, now worry about a new challenge from an unexpected quarter: America.
The alarm sounded when the online news site Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) said that The Planet, a leading international Web-hosting firm based in Dallas, abruptly terminated its contract. Now, other Iranian websites that rely on US Webservers are bracing for similar action.
The independent voices may be getting caught up in a larger battle, some analysts argue. The shutdown, they say, may be collateral damage from "war on terror" efforts to silence Internet communications from the "axis of evil."
The Internet has become the last refuge for liberal Iranian journalists and independent bloggers (who publish Weblogs, or blogs) since the hard-line judiciary in Tehran has closed scores of reformist publications over the past four years.
Some Iranian bloggers argue that it suits Tehran's hard-liners, as well as hawks in Washington, to silence the Iranian public on the international scene, enabling both to manipulate the reality of Iran to advance their agendas.
But Web-hosting firms, which say they cannot screen all the content posted on their expansive networks, face embarrassment if it is discovered they have inadvertently provided service to terror groups that purchase space through middlemen. To play it safe, some may view any business from Iran, which is in President Bush's 'axis of evil," is more trouble than it's worth.
Aaron Weisburd, of Carbondale, Ill., who tracks down websites affiliated with Islamic terror groups for his organization, Internet Haganah, suspects The Planet may just be "trigger happy" at the moment following recent reports in the Dallas media. Web servers operated by The Planet were said to have hosted some Al Qaeda-affiliated sites whose owners had bought space through middlemen.
A day after a story aired on The Planet in November on the Dallas CBS affiliate station, two Al Qaeda websites and two for Hamas were no longer available. The sites were located by Mr. Weisburd, who says if anything the US authorities actually pressure providers to keep suspect sites online so they can be monitored - an approach he criticizes strongly.
But, Weisburd adds, it would be "unjust" if dissident Iranians could not get hosting in the US. "The US is the one country where Iranian bloggers ought to be able to freely operate a website," he says. The elegant solution, he continues, "would be for the US to explicitly allow Iranian dissidents to operate their sites in the US, even if that means granting them an exception to the rules regarding the transfer of funds."
Other companies merely follow the US ban on American companies engaging in business with countries that the US State Department has designated sponsors of terrorism. GoDaddy.com, a leader in domain registration, says on its site that "due to US government policies" it actively blocks Iran and six other countries on the terrorism list.
Some Iranian bloggers say it's unclear whether The Planet has terminated all accounts identified as Iranian, or was acting only against those which had violated the terms of their agreements by, for instance, not paying their bill.
"But the bottom line, to me, is that all these restrictions are mostly limiting the free speech of ordinary Iranian people," Hossein Derakhshan, the Canadian-based Iranian blogger.
Some 20 Iranian online journalists and bloggers were arrested and held for up to two months in late 2004, on charges such as violating national security, inciting unrest, and insulting "sanctities."
Iranian commentators have been quick to point out it would be deeply ironic if such voices are now further stifled by America, the world's most vocal advocate of free speech. Most nongovernmental Iranian websites are hosted by foreign companies: those in the US offer some of the best and cheapest Web hosting services.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former Iranian vice president turned popular blogger who uses his site to promote his reformist views, suggested the US government was behind The Planet's move. He branded the action against INSA, an "impartial news site," as "the worst form of censorship."
It was "glaring evidence of [the] insincerity" of the US whose president used the word "freedom" 27 times in his inauguration speech, Abtahi, a mid-ranking cleric, wrote on his blog.
A lot of information about Iranian politics and society on American outlets such as Voice of America and Radio Farda (a Farsi-language radio station) is also gleaned from outlets such as INSA. Terminating contracts such as INSA's could close valuable sources of information for America's own agencies, analysts say.
INSA, which is still accessible on the Internet after it moved to servers in Europe and elsewhere, is a popular, semiofficial newswire whose staff is primarily made up of university students.
Its readers are mostly young Internet users and it is considered supportive of the reformist movement in Iran that encourages democratic change in the country.
INSA says The Planet had given it 48 hours to find a new provider and gave no explanation for the abrupt termination of its contract. Shahram Sharif, a technology journalist in Tehran, says The Planet had also acted against six servers belonging to another Iranian company. Many other Planet-hosted Iranian websites that named another country in their profile were still "working fine," he told the Monitor via e-mail.
A spokeswoman for the The Planet said the company would not be able to comment at this time but said it always has a good reason for terminating a contract.
Some Americans, writing to Iranian blogs on the subject, doubted the termination of contracts was deliberate censorship but probably the consequence of Washington's sanctions on financial dealings with countries on the terrorism list. They suggested one solution would be for Washington to grant an exception to the rules regarding the transfer of funds so that liberal Iranians can operate their sites.
A similar precedent was set recently, although it required a lawsuit first when Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist and Iran's first Nobel laureate, sued the US because its embargo blocked publication of her memoirs in America.
The case prompted a rule change by the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets. The controversial ban on publications from Iran, Sudan, and Cuba was eased in order to allow dissidents and others not linked to the governments of those countries to be heard, while maintaining an embargo on official documents.