May 25, 2009— -- Iranian officials have banned Facebook in the Islamic Republic after it became an immensely popular tool for mobilizing young voters, many of them supporters of lead challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
While squelching debate in his own country, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to rally his supporters today with a new proposal.
Ahmadinejad said he wanted a face-to-face debate with President Obama at the United Nations if he is re-elected next month as Iran's president.
While some interpret this offer as mere campaign posturing, it could yield a new development for relations between the United States and Iran.
In the same press conference Ahmadinejad sidestepped questions about whether authorities ordered a Facebook block late last week. But he said he believed "in maximum freedom of expression."
"There are many Web sites active in the world that can be accessed in Iran. Many Web sites are against the government," he said, adding that officials "don't need to shut any sites down."
Iran had unblocked access to Facebook in February, and the site quickly jumped to the 10th most popular in the country.
The Iranian government encourages computer literacy, even if it blocks millions of sites deemed socially or politically harmful. Savvy computer users navigate around the block using proxy server software, circulated in Iran for little or no money.
"When something's filtered they find a way around," said Kelly Niknejad, publisher of online news source TehranBureau.com.
"Mousavi's campaign has been the most visible online. He has made the most of use of [technology], because he is appealing for the most part ... to intellectuals and young people and women," Niknejad said. Twitter and text messages have also been integrated into the campaign.
Another candidate, reformist cleric and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, denounced the Facebook ban, which began on Saturday.
"[Facebook] was filtered by the authorities because of moral issues. But filtering Facebook just days before the election was wrong," Karoubi said. An estimated 150,000 Iranians are on Facebook, according to The Associated Press.
Many Facebook pages and online appeals were aimed at fighting voter apathy among young Iranians. Low youth turnout is believed to work in favor of conservatives. One Facebook banner reads "No vote is a vote for Ahmedinejad."
Iranians vote in the first round of elections on June 12. The race is expected to continue into a runoff.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.