A Grand Ayatollah in Iran has determined that access to high-speed and 3G Internet is “against Sharia” and “against moral standards.” In answer to a question published on his website, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, one of the country’s highest clerical authorities, issued a fatwa, stating “All third generation [3G] and high-speed internet services, prior to realization of the required conditions for the National Information Network [Iran’s government-controlled and censored Internet which is under development], is against Sharia [and] against moral and human standards.”

He added that “Judicial officials must not remain indifferent about this vital issue.” The question was raised for the Grand Ayatollah by “a group of cyber space activists,” according to his website.

Internet access has been an ongoing struggle between Iran’s hardliners, who retain key bases of power in the judicial, intelligence and security branches of government and wish to maintain strict censorship and control over all information, and the 42 million Iranians—some 55% of the population—who use the Internet. Internet speed is a critical weapon in this battle, as the authorities frequently slow the speed of the Internet as a means to render it effectively useless, thereby depriving the citizenry of the online access it needs for professional, educational, and commercial use.

During his presidential election campaign in 2013, the centrist Hassan Rouhani responded to demands of his supporters for higher speed Internet access by saying: “We are in a situation where our researchers and students wish to use the Internet. Our people deserve better than to wait for information on the Internet.”

Shortly after taking office, Rouhani’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Mahmoud Vaezi, said in December 2013 that Internet speeds will increase to double and triple their existing rates. He also acknowledged the public demand for higher Internet bandwidth and speed and said that a three-year plan will address the issue.

However, conservative, religious, and security organizations and officials fear the loss of control that a faster Internet will bring, and as such resist the administration’s efforts to provide the faster services. As significant as a Grand Ayatollah’s fatwa is, it is not mandatory for the administration to enforce it. Nevertheless, the gesture is indicative of the clerics’ strong views on the issue and the difficulties the Rouhani administration will have in delivering such capabilities.

The conservative majority of the Iranian Parliament wants the Rouhani administration to abandon its plans for faster Internet, and to continue pursuing development of the National Information Network, (National Intranet) which was begun under the previous Ahmadinejad administration and will give the government total control over Internet access inside Iran. On July 6, 2014, several Members of Parliament issued a written warning to the Communications Minister about his concentration on what they called “secondary issues” such as “Internet bandwidth,” or “un-blocking Internet websites,” and demanded that he switch to establishing the National Intranet.

Any limitations Iranian officials and high-ranking clerics impose on Internet access are in violation of UN treaties. The UN adopted a resolution in 2012, which stipulates that Internet access is a right for all peoples of the world, and demands that countries respect the right to free expression and free access to the Internet and guarantee this right for their citizens. [Link: The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.

Rouhollah Momen, a former Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance official from the previous Ahmadinejad cabinet, told the Communication and Information Technology News Agency (CITNA) on August 21 that Grand Ayatollahs and top clerics of Qom have expressed their concerns about the implementation of 3G Internet and higher in the country. "If the Ministry of Communications does not pay attention to the sensitivities of the people and the ulama [high-ranking clerics], [the Ministry] will have no choice but to prepare itself for significant developments at the Parliament and in society,” he said, adding, “This is why Qom ulama have said that if their warnings are not heeded, they are even prepared to come to Tehran to object to this issue.

Mahmoud Khosravi, Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of the Ertebatat-e Zirsakht (Communications Infrastructure) Company, stated recently that three million new requests for high-speed Internet services had been filed.