By Sarah Bryn Witmer, Research Associater
There are many factors that have led to a thriving tech industry in Iran, including abundant resources, lifted sanctions, and a youthful, highly educated population. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the industry has also benefited in large part due to active support from the Iranian government. Over a decade ago in 2005, the Islamic Republic released a “20 Year National Vision” statement, known as Vision 2025, describing the state’s intentions to achieve “first place in the areas of economy, science, and technology in the Western South Asia region,” specifically in “high tech [software knowledge] production.” More recently, President Rouhani’s administration has categorized the tech sector as one of the nation’s top three priorities in a shorter five-year plan. Pursuant to this goal, the administration has released an unprecedented budget for communications and internet infrastructure. The government has also reversed decisions that limited internet speeds for residential users, and has issued 3G and 4G licenses to Iran’s main mobile operators. Today, many Iranians own smartphones (primarily Androids), and approximately 47 million people - nearly half of Iran’s population - use the internet.
Technology is increasingly becoming part of everyday life in Iran Social media is popular within the country - both for staying in touch with friends and also for connecting with those outside of Iran. After President Trump’s travel ban, while some Iranian hard-liners gathered to burn American flags and effigies of the American president, other Iranians took to Twitter with the hashtag #LoveBeyondFlags. “We thank Americans who stood up for the seven countries blocked from entering the US by the new travel ban,” one popular Iranian Twitter account shared, along with the hashtag. Twitter and Facebook accounts are popular in Iran, although a VPN proxy is needed to bypass strict government firewalls. As a recent Forbes article argues, “By necessity, Iranians are tech-savvy.” Ironically, even as part of the government promotes technological innovation, religious leaders continue to demand tight censorship, and argue that the government must limit social media use and internet speeds to prevent “un-Islamic behavior.” As a result, Iran faces one of the highest brain-drain rates in the world, as over 150,000 specialists emigrate every year for better economic opportunities and fewer restrictions abroad.
Abroad, Iranian entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the flexibility of being outside of the government’s control to develop technology for use within the country. Firuzeh Mahmoudi is one such example: she founded Irancubator, a San Francisco-based startup that creates phone applications to address social and political issues in Iran. Irancubator’s latest projects have included an app similar to Yelp for rating public officials, apps in Iran’s thirty heritage ethnic languages, which are banned from official use, and the Iran Prison Atlas, to track Iran’s political prisoners. This year, Mahmoudi and her Irancubator team—composed mostly of young Iranians who recently moved to the U.S.—launched Radito, an app that allows Iranian people to broadcast their own radio channels about topics that are important to them.
A report on Iran’s tech sector from the World Economic Forum, released just after the signing of the JCPOA in July 2015, lamented that, “the idea of a nuclear Iran has overshadowed a far more interesting debate about Iran’s non-nuclear economic potential.” While there are still challenges within the government to enable modernization while preserving tradition, and while censorship and freedom of speech are ongoing obstacles to private business, the Iranian people are finding ways to innovate. With the removal of international sanctions, foreign investors are taking notice: While Tehran’s first International Innovation and Technology Exhibition (INOTEX) in 2012 hosted experts almost exclusively from Russia, this May’s exhibition is expected to gather experts from nearly 25 countries. More about the exhibition below.
Iran’s 6th International Innovation and Technology Exhibition (INOTEX2017)
Tehran International Fairground
May 23-26, 2017