The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and Washington Post have dubbed it a "Twitter Revolution," speculating about whether new technology will enable Iranian protesters to overcome government forces. The role of technology in the current unrest is well-covered elsewhere. What is lacking in much of the coverage, however, is a sense of context.
Technology has been essential both to empire formation and preservation, and to state degradation in the Middle East. The late historian Marshall G.S. Hodgson described the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires as "gunpowder empires." Their sultans and shahs consolidated control over expansive territories by controlling weaponry which potential aspirants to power along the periphery did not have. Once the central government lost monopoly over guns and cannons, however, the empires fractured—devolving into fiefdoms or dissolving completely.
In Iran, technology played a particularly important role in state preservation Looking at 18th and early 19th century atlases, borders are all over the place. Discrepancies of dozens if not hundreds of miles mark frontiers on maps published by different gazetteers. Whereas today imperialism is presented in almost cartoonish terms as a free-for-all, in reality there were huge debates during the 19th century whether or not to expand imperial control over various territories. Imperial rule was an expensive prospect, and so many imperial powers preferred to advance informal control.
Britain did this in Iran by supporting various regional officials—for example, briefly recognizing the autonomy of Makran (Baluchistan) in the mid-19th century and flirting with Sheikh Khazal in Khuzistan at the beginning of the 20th century. While rulers could claim as much territory as they liked, the real litmus test was whether they were able to extract taxes. Sometimes governors or sub-district governors along a country's periphery, many of whom paid for their offices, calculated they could keep all the revenue for themselves and not remit anything to the center. Often, foreign powers encouraged such defiance (e.g. in Georgia, Kuwait, Herat, and Khorramshahr).
This would create a quandary for the Shah. If he ignored the governor's defiance, he would effectively lose that province. Mobilizing the military and launching a punitive expedition, however, was extremely expensive. As Iran flirted with bankruptcy throughout the 19th century, the Shah had very few resources at his disposal, and the periphery knew it.
Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896), however, embraced the telegraph. He could threaten and cajole opponents, and keep on top of the latest intelligence. What were the Russians doing in Azerbaijan? What were Kurdish tribes doing across the Ottoman frontier? Could he afford to dispatch the army and still maintain his security? In many ways, it was the telegraph which allowed the Shah to play foreign powers and domestic competitors off each other and preserve Iranian independence, even in the regime's weakened state.
What was a blessing for the government and for the consolidation of the state, however, turned into a liability. Over time, the Shah's government lost control over the communications network. While the popular belief in the 1860s and 1870s was that the telegraph ended at the Shah's throne, myriad Iranian groups discovered that they could communicate directly with each other and against the central government. This became quite clear in the early 1890s when, desperate to raise revenue, the Nasir al-Din Shah granted the unpopular Tobacco Regie which gave the British a monopoly over all phases of one of Iran's most important industries, from agriculture to sale. Liberals, nationalists, and clerics joined forces to force the Shah to retract. Clerics in Najaf used the telegraph to issue a fatwa, obeyed even by members of the Shah's household, prohibiting the use of tobacco until the Shah recanted. The telegraph network enabled the formation of the mass movement.
This point was driven home in the first decade of the 20th century during Iran's constitutional revolution. Britain backed constitutional forces, and the Russian government supported the autocrat shah. The conflict was bloody and, just as in Iran today, it made headlines. When reactionary forces laid siege to Tabriz, then Iran's second largest city, British papers reported news of the deprivation and starvation received by telegraph. What once would have occurred without notice in Europe, sparked outrage.
As the Shah cracked down, a broad array of constitutionalists, nationalists, liberals, clerics, and Bakhtiari tribesmen coordinated their actions by wire. The Shah's forces sought to cut the wires, but the network was too vast, and not entirely under the government's control. Importantly, the telegraph extended across the frontier into what now is Iraq. Senior clerics cabled instructions from Najaf and Karbala.
Technology created a template upon which the opposition could act. Oppression was a constant during the Qajar period and, indeed, before. It was technology, however, that enabled the mass movement; it simply could not occur before the technology template was laid.
Into the 20th century, the Iranian government sought again to dominate technology. Early in Reza Shah's reign (1925-1941), the Iranian government controlled radio. Under his son and successor, the state controlled television. However, it could not control audio tapes smuggled across the border from Iraq, and so in the 15 years before the Islamic Revolution, the audio cassette—easily copied and distributed—was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's only means of communication. While Khomeini's image is iconic now, it should be remembered that until his return to Iran, many Iranians knew his voice but had not seen his image.
The Islamic Republic knows it is unpopular, and knows its vulnerability to technology. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stepped in to cancel a 2004 contract granted to Turkcell to create an independent cell phone network in Iran. Only this past year did the Iranian government bless the introduction of multimedia messaging services in the Islamic Republic. It could be a decision the Islamic Republic will not live long enough to regret.