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The Politics of Cyberspace in Iran: 
State-society and International Relations in the Information Age

  • Author / Creator
    Safshekan Esfahani, Roozbeh
  • Cyberspace is a domain accommodating an unprecedented level of human activity and social relations, with significant implications for domestic politics and international relations. Despite the growing significance of cyberspace in politics, it has received relatively little attention in the scholarly literature, especially with regard to the measures that states are adopting to manage this emerging domain of power. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) provides a strong case study for understanding this dynamic, having experienced the full spectrum of opportunities and risks associated with the exercise of power in cyberspace. Using the IRI as a case study, this dissertation asks: what measures has the IRI adopted to manage the risks and opportunities of cyberspace as an emerging domain of power, and how have these measures interacted with Iranian state-society and international relations?
    This dissertation criticizes the materialist and state-centric concept of power in structural realism as an inadequate analytical tool for examining how power is exercised in cyberspace. In order to suggest an inclusive conceptualization of power, which highlights the significance of ideational factors and non-state actors in the exercise of power in cyberspace, this dissertation draws on the theoretical frameworks of Robert W. Cox and Joseph S. Nye, distinguishing between four major types of power: coercive power; economic power; power embedded in international institutions; and co-optive power generated from ideational sources. The exercise of each type of power in Iranian cyberspace is examined in a separate chapter by using a hybrid methodology suitable for analyzing quantitative and qualitative data collected from online public documents, academic literature on cyberpolitics, semi-structured interviews, raw technical and macro-economic data, and social media data.
    First, this dissertation identifies the main pillars through which the IRI exercises coercive power in cyberspace at the domestic level, showing how they limit Iranian users’ access to information and compromise their online security. These pillars are the national information network; comprehensive regime of filtering; and restrictive body of law regulating cyber activities and the law enforcement organizations that implement it. The dissertation also examines the IRI’s exercise of coercive power at the global level and identifies the main defensive and offensive cyber measures taken by the IRI to establish deterrence against foreign adversaries.
    Second, the dissertation examines the measures adopted by the IRI to exploit the significant potential of cyberspace for economic development. Using four main global indexes of information and communication technology development, this study compares the impact of cyberspace on the Iranian economy against the impact on a sample of economies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Middle East regions. The analysis of these indexes illustrates the IRI has fallen short of meeting the ambitious goals that it has set for itself in its core development documents.
    Third, the dissertation studies the policies promoted by the IRI to govern cyberspace through international institutions of Internet governance. Analyzing the official documents of six major global forums on Internet governance, the research finds that the IRI agenda is mainly preoccupied with the issues of the digital divide and what it perceives as the negative role of Global North countries and non-state actors in Internet Governance. The analysis shows that overemphasis on these issues led the IRI to ignore the complexity of the emerging regime of global Internet Governance and, consequently, to overlook pervasive issues such as transnational cybercrime.
    Fourth, this dissertation examines how effectively moderates and principlists, the IRI’s two main political currents, utilize cyberspace to generate the ideational sources of co-optive power. Analyzing the online content generated by the selected moderate and principlist figures and the level of content generation and user engagement they spawn, the research finds that moderates exert strong influence over the generation of ideational sources in Iranian cyberspace. The analysis also finds that principlists have recently made the shift from a reactive to proactive approach to cyberspace and actively engaged in an online competition with moderates over the generation of ideational sources. When it comes to user engagement, however, principlists still lag behind moderates.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2018
  • Type of Item
    Thesis
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
    https://doi.org/10.7939/R3610W77B
  • License
    Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.