I thought I could just play the tourist in Iran and not have to play the cat and mouse. But now I’m just one of millions of mice scrambling to tunnel past the latest pounce on online freedom.

It’s been frustrating and time-consuming to deal with the government cutting off access to WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Skype and even Google Play and Apple’s App Store three weeks ago.

Four days ago, I sat on the floor of a hotel room in Shahrud, hunched over three cell phones each connected to one of Iran’s three cell providers. I was in the area to photograph mountains dotted with quaint villages. Instead I was sweating to send a one-line WhatsApp message to work colleagues.

I cursed and yelled. I asked existential questions. Why am I here? What is the point of all this?

Then it dawned on me: millions of Iranians are going through the same thing right now, scrambling to message loved ones abroad or not miss Zoom classes or reach their online businesses. Of the millions earning a living online close to 90%  are on Instagram – the one place people thought the government would never block because it is the livelihood of so many.

Social Media Stats Islamic Republic Of Iran Sept 2021 - Sept 2022
Social Media Stats Islamic Republic Of Iran
Sept 2021 – Sept 2022

Old Story Here

Of course, the average person here is not as discombobulated as I am because Iranians are used to dealing with online censorship. For years, Iran has been blocking access to Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and millions of other Web destinations.

I see the smile on the faces of Iranians when I’m carping about the Internet here. They’re not impressed but they’re too polite to tell me so. Their problems are on a different scale. I lose my cool over missed Zoom appointments. They’re wrestling with double- and triple-digit inflation, life-threatening shortages of medicine, and a world bent on strangling their economy.

VPN, key to the forbidden

Iranians circumvent government censorship with VPN, software that bypass Internet blocks by tunneling – yes, tunneling, like Jerry fleeing Tom – secure connections to servers abroad.

It’s like donning a new identity. The government can’t tell where you’re going. The sites outside Iran can’t tell where you’re coming from.

It’s the international key to the forbidden. Americans and Europeans use VPN to download pirated movies or avoid NSA snooping. People in the UAE use VPN to bypass the sheikhs’ ban on Internet calls designed to gouge their own people with exorbitant phone rates.

Governments are Powerful

Virtual Private Networks installed on Iranian phones is as common as kebabs and rice here.  But in the last few days, Iran’s has been surprisingly effective at disrupting VPN access. Both of my VPNs stopped working four days ago.

Until then, I thought the government messing with the Internet wasn’t a huge deal. I even thought Internet shutting down every night was a nice break. I was going to bed early without Internet and waking up early for Internet back on. This Islamic regimen is good for you! I thought a few days ago!

But that was before the government rejiggered the Internet to the extent that “our current firewall is even worse than what is china is using.”

Without VPN, suddenly the magnitude of the government’s power sinks in. No more online classes or meetings. No more instant messaging or team collaborations. Working remotely abroad? Forget it.

“We can’t live here anymore,” I told Saeideh as we strolled our neighborhood one evening.

“Give it some time,” she advised.

To notify people of my predicament, I called a colleague abroad and left him a voicemail. He called me back immediately. We spoke for 40 minutes. He got a $210 bill from T-Mobile.

So this is why VPN demand in Iran has allegedly surged 3000-percent. People are calling each other and begging for help. Geeks are suddenly in high demand.

“We want to respond to all the requests but this is beyond our ability,” is a typical response to Farsi speakers scrambling to find alternatives.

Catch-22

In my case, I had to go through an embarrassingly slow learning process.

Day one: VPN won’t connect. No big deal. I’ll install another that works. But every attempt to install on Google Play says “pending”. Wife’s phone says the same. Pending what? Damn you Google. Now you fail me?

Day two: I finally realize it’s not Google. The government is blocking the app markets too. That “pending” means “pending whenever we feel like it.”

So finally I discover the cold truth: to download new smarter VPN I need to already possess new smarter VPN that can get past the government’s blocks.

And how do I even search for answers when the government is blocking every VPN-related page in existence?

I called people and begged. I got lucky.

Day Three: Now I have five new VPNs installed. Only one works well on my phone. The PC is still on constant connects and disconnects at dramatically lower speeds.

I see this on Windows about every 10 minutes:

psiphon 3 trying to connect in Iran

Panic over, for now

I triumphantly make it to a meeting online on my Android. “It’s a miracle I’m here,” I announced.

And now I also have the perfect excuse for avoiding people I want to avoid.

“Sorry. I’m in Iran. Crappy Internet. If you watch the news, you know what I mean.”

Good for thick skins

“It’s all good, right?” Saeideh asks as she watches me bask in life returning to normal.

She thinks these hurdles are good training for life management, to develop a thick skin like all the Iranians around me.

“I haven’t seen you this active in a long time,” she says.

“I’m active because I am a rat in a God-damned maze!” I roar back.

Spoiled pussies

But she’s got a point. Iranians living in Iran are tough as nails and they all got Ph.D’s in circumventing barriers. The cat and mouse builds character.

To these Iranians, people raised in the West, they’re chumps. They envy Westerners for their freedoms and technology and robust currencies but they also pity them for being spoiled pussies.

Like I wrote before: what didn’t kill them made them stronger – something technologically superior powers often fail to consider.