Iran's dream of hi-tech

While sanctions and strict religious control over the internet have hampered the Islamic Republic's hi-tech development, local versions of popular sites thrive throughout the Middle East.

Iranian women take a picture of a presidential candidate with their mobile phones in Tehran , Iran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian women take a picture of a presidential candidate with their mobile phones in Tehran , Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a digital world, one would think that a country whose strict Islamic control blocks most types of popular social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, would be left behind in the dust. Not quite so. Techy Iranians make their own versions of popular sites and apps instead.
Iranian sites such as Digikala, which bills itself as the biggest online store in the Middle East, is worth $150 million and brings to its site 750,000 new users each day, according to a report by British newspaper The Guardian.
Aparat is a video streaming site similar to YouTube and Takhfifan is Iran's answer to Groupon.
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Despite sanctions, some foreign businesses have been willing to lose out on business in the American market in order to penetrate the Iranian one instead. Such is the case with the partnership of MTN, a telecom company from South Africa, and Germany's Rocket Internet. They joined forces to launch Iranian versions of Amazon (which goes by the name Bamilo), Uber (Taxi Yaab) and eBay (Mozando).
With 70 percent of its population under the age of 35, it's no wonder that Iranian interest in hi-tech is on the rise. Smartphones are extremely popular and the amount of internet users in the Islamic Republic makes up almost half of all internet users in the entire Middle East.
Those in the hi-tech sector are hoping that the lifting of sanctions will allow their startups to thrive. Farhad Hedayati,the head of task management platform Taskulu said in June, prior to the Iran nuclear agreement's passing, that sanctions were the biggest obstacle to allowing his business to succeed, since money cannot be transferred to Iran directly.
“Iran is a good place to work right now, it is opening up but the trade-off is sanctions,” Hedayati said. “Internally we can’t use many services because they are filtered from within Iran but also there are many international services which foreign companies have not made available for Iranian users because of sanctions.”
On the other hand, some in Iran are worried that if companies like Google enter the market, they will put the Iranian brands out of business. Cafe Bazaar, Iran's biggest Android app store, could take a hit if the official Google Play store would become available to Iranian smartphone users. Currently, though, it is worth an estimated $20 million and offers over 25,000 apps, both international and Iranian.
Hopes are especially high with the passing of the nuclear accords on July 14, which could allow more trade and involvement between the Iranian market and the rest of the world, allowing the hi-tech sector to develop even more. Still, religious controls on media are expected to remain in place.
For now, the world waits as the freeze on Iran slowly thaws and possible allows Iran to take a step in joining the world even more in the digital revolution.