Iran's mullahs are convinced their problem is social media, not how they run their regime

While President Trump, President Emmanuel Macron, and Chancellor Angela Merkel are pressing Iran's mullahs for a more comprehensive nuclear deal and drawing a political map to curb Iran's missile development, nuclear activities, and regional meddling, back home, things are not so rosy for the mullahs, either. 

A new challenge resurfaced before the authorities in Iran: Iran's judiciary banned the popular Telegram instant messaging app to "protect national security," Iranian state television said last Monday.  According to Reuters, Iran has banned Telegram after claiming that the app inspires and spreads uprisings and anti-government protests, as it happened when anti-government protests exploded in 142 cities in December 2017.

Telegram has become one of the most popular instant messaging apps in the world, with 200 million users, including Iran, with 40 million clients.

In the absence of a free and unrestrained press in Iran, social media, especially the popular Telegram, have incredible influence on Iranian life, community, culture, views, and business.  Telegram is widely used by the Iranian youths who try to circumvent the clerical regime's censorship on the internet.  Telegram allows them to share the joy of wonderful news from friends and unite them in groups.  That wasn't how the mullahs saw it, however.  Officials in Iran said protesters used Telegram to organize the rallies, which were ultimately contained by the Revolutionary Guards and their affiliated volunteer Basij militia.

That gradually evolved into a dilemma for Iranian authorities.  To get a solution, Iranian officials have been trying to get Iranians to use domestic alternatives to Telegram, like Soroush.  Although this app offers many of Telegram's features, many Iranians are reluctant to use domestic apps, fearing they could be used by security services to spy on them.

Iranian exiles threw paper planes, the symbol of Telegram, at a rally in Moscow on Monday, April 30, 2018, to protest the government's blocking of the app.  But in Iran, despite social media censorship and the blocking of the Telegram app, genius-grade Iranian youths cracked the filters and bypassed the censors by using virtual private networks (VPNs) in their battle with the mullahs.  The authorities in Iran then expanded filtering of the internet by satellite signal jamming to prevent bypassing and access to social media.  Apparently, they succeeded.

Meanwhile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) issued a statement, a Call for Protest against shutting down Telegram by Iran's regime, stating: "The Iranian Resistance strongly condemns this repressive action and urges all the people, especially the youth across the country, to protest the Internet repression and blocking Telegram.  It also calls on the UN Security Council, the member states and relevant international bodies, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as well as international authorities defending human rights and freedom of expression, to strongly condemn this Internet piracy and communications crackdown that violates many international treaties, and to take the necessary measures to deal with this breach of law in the international level, and to secure free access to the Internet and social networks and secure communications for the Iranian people."

Sadegh Larijani, the Iranian judiciary chief, said a few days ago: "Social networks are now used by the arrogance and the PMOI to undermine the pillars of the system" (ILNA State News Agency, April 25).  The IRGC news network, FARS, described Telegram as a means to "threaten national security and to cause revolt, turmoil, disappointment and incitement to pessimism in the society."

In fact, the internet has long been a battleground in Iran between the people and the supreme leader, who feels he must protect the regime from dangerous influences, a struggle that intensified when Telegram refused the Iranian regime's request to filter news channels sympathetic to the PMOI-MEK.

Shahin Gobadi, a PMOI spokesman, said: "The clerical regime's attempt to urge even foreign companies to filter the channels sympathetic to the Iranian Resistance clearly manifests the regime's fear and anxiety regarding the growing popularity of the Iranian Resistance at home, in particular among the young Iranians."

In recent years, Reporters Without Borders designated 19 countries as "enemies of the internet" for actions ranging from social media censorship in Iran to North Korea building its own internal internet and walling its citizens off from the global web.  Last year, more than 70,000 cyberspace users were arrested (192 per day) in Iran.

To end this, we may conclude that when a number of popular social networks got blocked in Iran, local social networks started to emerge one by one to fill in the gap.

Hassan Mahmoudi is a human rights advocate, specializing in political and economic issues relating to Iran and the Middle East.

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