Since antigovernment protests began in the Iranian city of Mashhad last week and soon spread across the country, Islamic Republic authorities have intensified Internet crackdown in an effort to block the Iranian people from access to information and means of communication. The primary target has been Telegram, the most popular messaging app used by about half of Iran’s 80 million population. Over the weekend, the Iranian government “temporarily” blocked Telegram and Instagram, another popular social media platform. The use of social media apps played a key role in the 2009 protests that engulfed Iran in the wake of the controversial presidential elections. Iranian authorities believe that these applications pose an even bigger threat to the regime now as nearly 50 million Iranians currently possess smartphones, compared to just a million in 2009.
Earlier today, a top Iranian Judiciary official defended the regime’s blocking of Telegram and described it as a national security threat. “This application had turned into a vehicle for riot and unrest in the country. There was no option but to temporarily filter Telegram. Indeed, some officials do not believe Telegram should be completely shut down. These individuals make the excuse that we should no enter people’s privacy,” said Hamid Shahriari, Head of the Judiciary’s Center for Statistics and Information Technology.
He claimed that he had been warning the government over the past one year that Telegram has become a “calamity and threat to the society and the Islamic regime” – emphasizing that the government should have taken steps to “properly control” the application. “Social networks must not be a vehicle for a movement against the national interest and the revolution. The threat and harms of Telegram from security and social perspectives have become clear to everyone.” He further warned that young people are influenced by messages shared on Telegram and join anti-regime protests.
Iranian authorities blocked Telegram soon after antigovernment protests broke out in several Iranian provinces a week ago. Protesters were using Telegram and Instagram to share and access information and organize protests. The encryption option in Telegram helps Iranians to keep their communication private from government monitoring. As the protests began, Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, had several public exchanges with Telegram’s owner Pavel Durov on Twitter (although the Iranian government has banned the people from using Twitter, officials frequently use it). On Sunday, Jahromi complained on Twitter that a Telegram channel was encouraging violence and unrest in the country – prompting Durov to reply, saying the company had shut down at least one channel that he said included calls for unrest. And on Wednesday, Jahromi threatened to shut down Telegram unless the company blocks “terrorist channels.” He said: “If [the] Telegram manager does not respect Iranians’ demand, the application will be closed completely.”
Intensifying cyber crackdown
Over the past one year, Iran has intensified internet crackdown. In the run-up to last year’s presidential elections, authorities blocked several messaging applications. Iran’s Deputy Police Chief announced that the country’s Cyber Police had increased its presence and activity in major population centers across the country to monitor the cyberspace and prevent cybercrimes. “The Cyber Police’s specialized labs have simultaneously been inaugurated in 16 provinces of the country through a video conference. At present, the Cyber Police’s advanced labs are active in 26 provinces of the country. By establishing these labs, security in the cyberspace will be maintained and the crime rate in this field will decline,” Brig. Gen. Eskandar Momeni, the deputy head of the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran, said.
Internet activism played a key role in the mobilization of anti-regime protests that rocked the Islamic Republic after the controversial 2009 presidential elections. As a result, the Iranian regime established new government agencies to tighten its control over the internet. In 2011, the Iranian government created the Cyber Police department; and a year later, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered the establishment of a new government agency, called Supreme Council of Cyberspace, in an effort to step up the country’s crackdown on Iranian internet users. Twitter and Facebook remain banned in Iran. Some Iranians use VPN software to circumvent the government’s restrictions and monitoring, but it carries risks.
In addition to measures taken by the country’s law enforcement forces, the Basij paramilitary organization has also taken an increasingly active role in monitoring and controlling the country’s cyberspace. Last year, Iran’s Deputy Attorney General Abdolsamad Khoramabadi announced that his office had tasked the Basij organization to take a leading role in cracking down on the country’s cyberspace. “About 18,000 people [Basij members] voluntarily monitor the cyberspace and report any violations by websites and [online] social networks to the office of the Attorney General,” he said.
Iranian authorities are also worried that foreign powers can exploit popular anger inside Iran to foment unrest and weaken the regime. Last year, Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization, warned that Tehran’s foreign adversaries are increasingly tapping into “social media and personal smart phones to carry out espionage operations against people.” According to Jalali, the latest smart phone technologies are so sophisticated that unsuspecting citizens in Iran can become collectors of information for foreign intelligence services.
While it is difficult to predict where the current protests will go in coming days and weeks, one thing is certain: Regime authorities will see the widespread protests as a wake-up call and take steps to restrict Iranians’ freedoms and securitize the society even further.
By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project – The Middle East Institute