In light of Iran’s nationwide internet shutdown in November, the Graduate School extended its application deadline to Dec. 31 for those living in the country.
The Iranian government turned off the country’s internet access for five days in mid-November in response to protests against the government raising gas prices. The Graduate School decided Nov. 25 to push back the deadline of program applications due on or before Dec. 9 for applicants in Iran.
A researcher and member of the Iranian community at Duke, who was granted anonymity for this article, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the national internet shutdown has sparked “major problems for Iranians inside and outside the country.”
The researcher, as someone with family in Iran, wrote that Iranian students studying abroad couldn’t communicate with their families and had trouble learning what was happening in the country.
“There was not a lot of news being reported from Iran,” he wrote. “It was a stressful week for us outside the country as well; we couldn’t have video calls with our families in Iran for about a week, which you can’t imagine how hard and stressful it could be, until you experience it.”
Having access to the internet is particularly important for Iranian students when studying abroad, he explained, because many Iranian students are unable to be reunited with their families for years.
In the United States, for instance, Iranian students obtain a single entry visa to study abroad, meaning they need to re-apply for another visa if they leave the country. He added that the U.S. travel ban makes it “almost impossible” for students’ families to obtain a visa, unless they meet certain exceptions or are eligible for a waiver, to visit them in the United States.
Additionally, the researcher wrote that the internet shutdown made the application process difficult for applicants in Iran, noting that those who reside in Iran were unable to take online exams—such as the TOEFL and the GRE—and could not send emails.
“I think it was a fair decision to extend the application deadline for these students,” he wrote. “I am very grateful of the Graduate School’s supportive decision, and I hope that this extension allows the prospective students to submit their applications successfully and on time.”
The Graduate School did so because the loss of internet access could have “affected their ability to complete various application requirements,” wrote John Zhu, senior public affairs officer and communications strategist of the Graduate School, in an email.
Although this has been the only extension during this application cycle, similar extensions have been granted in the past to those who may have struggled to complete the applications due to situations like natural disasters, Zhu added.
'The government is panicking'
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The scale of Iran’s internet shutdown was unprecedented: after the 16-hour mark, it became the largest ever in the country’s history, according to Oracle Internet Intelligence.
Internet began to be partially restored on Nov. 21, according to Reuters, in Tehran and various Iranian provinces.
Abdeslam Maghraoui, associate professor of the practice of political science and core faculty in the Duke University Middle East Studies Center, said that the decision to extend the application deadline should be commended. He noted that the Iranian government’s response to the 2019 oil protests is the first time that the government resorted to such “drastic measures.” However, internet restrictions and censorship are not new, he added in an email.
The protests that sparked the internet shutdown were due to the government, with the support of Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, deciding to increase oil prices in light of sanctions against Iranian oil companies, such as those imposed by the Trump administration, Maghraoui explained.
Importantly, the governmental body that made this decision was “a special, non-elected council appointed by the Supreme Leader,” Maghraoui wrote in an email. In contrast, the Islamic Consultative Assembly—Iran’s national legislative body that is subject to elections—opposed the measure.
Maghraoui said that many of the assembly’s officials are “moderate,” ran on a platform to improve Iran’s economic situation and are “fully aware that such an increase will have the opposite effects.”
“What we see in this kind of situation is the increasing role of the non-elected bodies and reinforcement of the hardliners in the regime,” Maghraoui said. “That is something important to keep in mind when thinking about whether the function and strategy of extreme pressure is really working or not.”
Governments usually have ways to surveille, filter or regulate the internet, Maghraoui explained. The Iranian government not using such devices demonstrates that the national internet shutdown was “more to censor news of the bloodshed going to the outside world than to disrupt communication among protestors,” he wrote.
He compared the oil price protests to recent periods of unrest in Iran, such as the 2009 protests against the results of the presidential election and the 2017-2018 protests about social issues, none of which resulted in a nationwide internet shutdown. Such a response is related to a new level of repression and “the emerging conversion of views between moderates and hardliners about what they see as an existential threat,” he wrote.
“The complete shutdown of the internet in Iran is a sign that the government is panicking,” Maghraoui said.