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Is Iran’s youngest minister biting off more than he can chew?

Iran's minister of communications and information technology is advancing the agenda of his transparency initiative, but Iranian officials are pushing back.

Dodging pressure from all sides, Iran’s minister of communications and information technology seems to have no intention of backing down from his push for transparency.

Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi enraged many influential cellphone importers last month by disclosing a list of the ones who allegedly took advantage of the current economic turbulence. Those companies had been granted whopping foreign currency at the official “unified” rate of 42,000 rials per dollar, but they had sold the products for prices calculated on the black market rate of around 79,000 rials per greenback. Ever since, the young minister has been facing mounting criticism, yet apparently not enough pressure to weaken his resolve.

Jahromi faced a new challenge this week after the head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization — which is affiliated with the General Staff of the Armed Forces — claimed that a central Tehran building belonging to the ministry was hosting servers for two new versions of the banned popular smartphone app Telegram. Gholam Reza Jalali is the same general who created controversy by speaking of an Israeli “theft of Iran’s clouds” earlier this month.

Alluding sarcastically to Jalali’s “cloud” remarks, the minister seized the moment as another chance to prove he is adamant in his transparency campaign. “Cloud theft may not be easy to prove, but it’s not hard to prove whether or not servers are stationed on the ninth floor of a ministry building,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an official ceremony in Tehran.

Sensing an attempted blow to his transparency drive, the minister described the general’s remarks as baseless. “Certain people inflict costs upon the country by those comments," he said. "Yet, as an official, I hold myself accountable to respond with transparency to this particular claim. Therefore, I have directed the public relations office to invite journalists to visit the site and let public opinion judge [for itself on] the matter.”

But it did not end there. In a strongly worded statement, the Passive Defense Organization said Jahromi’s move to allow journalists to visit the site was a show: “Instead of journalists, the minister should have invited technical, judicial and security experts to visit the building.”

The statement also repeated earlier criticism against Jahromi for failing the domestically developed messaging systems: “The ministry’s continuous hosting for the unauthorized versions of Telegram is undoubtedly a blow to the 24/7 efforts by the tireless young experts … who have been developing efficient … messaging systems. … If you had dedicated the support for Telegram … to homemade social networking systems, they would have now definitely been able to compete with the foreign versions.”

The bitter exchange came only a few days after another transparency gesture by the young minister. In a bold move, he infringed upon signal jamming, another controversial issue that, despite being a technical matter, has had political implications, creating further divide between the country’s hard-liners and moderates.

During a visit to the southern city of Shiraz, Jahromi announced plans to set up monitors across the city to alarm residents of the hazards that signal jamming could cause their immediate surroundings.

The Iranian establishment has intensified its jamming project since 2009, amid street protests following the disputed presidential election that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad land a second term. Iran says the main purpose of jamming is to minimize propaganda by adversarial foreign-based TV channels and radio stations. But moderate officials have always raised alarm regarding the practice and called for an end to it.

All in all, the path taken by the country’s youngest minister is a bumpy one. Jahromi has faced unprecedented opposition less than one month since he initiated his transparency campaign. Whether he will give in to pressure or will come out triumphant could end up depending on the level of support he receives from President Hassan Rouhani, who has faced massive pressure since he appointed Jahromi to serve as the first minister born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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