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Iran’s shutdown of Gmail sparks backlash

TEHRAN — Iran’s cyber monitors often tout their fight against the West’s ‘‘soft war’’ of influence through the Web, but trying to block Google’s popular Gmail appeared to be a swipe too far.

Complaints piled up — even from progovernment media and e-mail-starved Parliament members — and forced authorities Sunday to back-pedal on their promises to create a parallel Web universe with Tehran as its center.

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The Gmail ban was imposed last week in response to clips on Google-owned YouTube of a film mocking the prophet Mohammed that set off deadly protests across the Islamic world.

The strong backlash to the ban and the unspecific pledges for an Iran-centric Internet alternative highlight the two sides of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing battles with the Web.

It has spurred another technological mobilization that fits neatly into Iran’s self-crafted image as the Muslim world’s showcase for science, including sending satellites into orbit, claiming advances in cloning and stem cell research, and facing down the West over its nuclear program.

But there also are the hard realities of trying to reinvent the Web. Iran’s highly educated and widely tech-savvy population is unlikely to warm quickly to potential clunky homegrown browsers or e-mail services. And then there’s the potential political and economic fallout of trying to close the tap on familiar sites such as Gmail.

‘‘Some problems have emerged through the blocking of Gmail,’’ Hussein Garrousi, a member of a parliamentary committee on industry, was quoted Sunday by the independent Aftab-e Yazd daily. What he apparently meant was that many lawmakers were angry and missing their e-mails.

He said that Parliament would summon the minister of telecommunications for questioning if the ministry did not lift the Gmail ban.

Even many newspapers close to the government complained over the e-mail disruptions. On Saturday, the Asr-e Ertebat weekly reported that Iranians had paid a total of $4.5 million to purchase proxy services to reach blocked sites, including Facebook and YouTube, over the past month.

Iranian authorities — perhaps recognizing the risks at hand — decided against taking a symbolic twin shot at Google by cutting access to the Web giant in a country with millions of Internet users.

Iran’s deputy telecoms minister, Ali Hakim Javadi, told reporters that Iranian authorities were considering lifting the Gmail ban. But he also used the opportunity to again promise development of Iran’s domestic alternatives: the Fakhr (“Pride”) search engine and the Fajr (“Dawn”) e-mail, Aftab-e Yazd reported.

When reporters noted the quality of Gmail services, Javadi quipped: ‘‘If there is Mercedes-Benz on the street, that doesn’t mean everyone drives a Mercedes.’’

Iran’s clerical establishment has long signaled its intent to get citizens off of the international Internet — which they say promotes Western values — and onto a ‘‘national’’ and ‘‘clean’’ domestic network. Earlier this year, Iran’s police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, called Google an ‘‘instrument of espionage’’ rather than a search engine.

But it is unclear whether Iran has the technical capacity to follow through on its ambitious plans, or is willing to risk the economic damage and the social shock waves.

The Internet has steadily become part of Iran’s fabric since the first Farsi-language sites developed a decade ago by Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan, who is considered one of the founders of Iran’s social media community.

Derakshan, however, was detained in 2008 and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison two years later as the battles heated up between liberals seeking open access to the Web and authorities trying to erect their own version of China’s ‘‘Great Firewall,’’ the name given to Beijing’s extensive filtering and censorship of the Internet.

Sites such as Twitter and Face­book were pillars of the street revolts after the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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