These measures follow weeks of debate between pragmatists and hardliners over the future of the app, which is estimated to be used by approximately half of Iran’s population of 80 million. Last week, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament’s committee on national security and foreign policy, said that the decision had been made at the highest levels to ban Telegram throughout the country, but it remains unclear whether the government will follow through.
The app was widely blamed for the rapid spread of anti-government protests in late December and early January, which came to encompass as many as 142 cities and towns while giving rise to provocative slogans and calls for regime change. Access to Telegram was restricted or fully blocked in various places and at various times while those protests were ongoing, but the government initially declined to extend the ban, ostensibly because doing so would have disrupted the operations of many Iranian businesses, which had come to rely on such communication tools.
Boroujerdi’s announcement of an imminent ban on the foreign-run service was supported by statements from other Iranian officials regarding the prospective shift to entirely domestic alternatives to Telegram. However, the Iranian public has strongly indicated that it would not participate in such a shift, given that the popularity of Telegram is largely based on its perceived security. The app’s creator and CEO, Pavel Durov, has been contacted on several occasions by Iranian authorities who demanded that he restrict content in Iran or move Iranian Telegram communications onto servers located inside the country. He has naturally refused.
Even so, Khamenei’s abandonment of Telegram suggests that the regime might be moving to attempt its promised shift, or at least to give the impression that it is doing so. The move also contrasts with Khamenei’s relationship with Twitter, which has been banned since shortly after it was used for organizing the Green Movement protests in 2009. Despite this ban, Khamenei and various other government officials maintained an active presence on the social network, which countless Iranians have continued to access using virtual proxy networks.
The apparent differences in the government’s attitude toward Telegram, may relate to the relative ease with which users of Twitter and Facebook can be monitored by the Iranian cyber police. Numerous Iranian political prisoners have been arrested on the basis of their online communications and authorities have supplemented formal bans with various efforts to control and criminalize the content on underground networks.
One of these, known as Operation Spider II, was brought back into the headlines by IranWire on Wednesday when it reported upon the current situation of Elham Arab, one of the fashion models who had been targeted by that sweep, with which the regime sought to stamp out the supposed promotion of Western culture and lifestyles. The 2016 operation saw the arrest of hundreds of models, makeup artists, photographers, and designers, some of whom were compelled to repent and issue false confessions via state media.
IranWire details Arab’s experience with just such a television appearance in May 2016, and it notes that she and other persons targeted by the sweep were barred from leaving the country for long periods of time afterwards. Arab now operates freely out of Dubai, she has revealed that while still in Iran, authorities effectively took control of her social media accounts, compelling her to continue posting but also designating the content of those posts so they could monitoring subsequent interactions.
Accounts such as these speak to the probable goal of Tehran’s desired shift to domestic alternatives to Telegram. And that theoretical shift is in turn part of a larger project, lauded by various hardliners, to insulate the entire Iranian internet from the world, allowing in only materials that are approved by the regime. In this sense, the internet has become a major battleground in Iran’s effort to keep foreign culture at bay – an effort that is underscored by countless hardline warnings about “infiltration” of the financial, political, and social spheres of the Islamic Republic.
This fear of foreign influence has been a driving force in hardline opposition to the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This opposition was detailed in another IranWire report on Monday, which noted that hardline pressure had led to a situation in which all Iranian participants in the 2015 nuclear negotiations, with the exception of Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, “are either in jail, have left the country, or have been marginalized.”
According to the report, those diplomats have variously been portrayed as spies, and although charges to this effect have been dropped in most cases, the political effect was seemingly permanent. In addition, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps evidently hacked the accounts of a number of negotiators, in an attempt both to surveil them and to exploit their burgeoning connections with Western counterparts.
Although these measures highlight the hardline fear of foreign contacts, they do not necessarily indicate a warm embrace of foreign influence among the supposedly moderate political faction associated with President Hassan Rouhani, the chief Iranian advocate of the nuclear deal. In fact, in other areas of policy, the Rouhani government has openly participated in fostering paranoia about perceived enemies in the West.
In one of the latest examples of this phenomenon, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Monday that the Rouhani-appointed Education Minister Mohammad Bathaei had threatened punishment for any official or non-governmental organization that uses any of the UNESCO-approved education guidelines from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The stated purpose of the guidelines is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” but Iranian officials have sought to portray it as promoting homosexuality and as potentially undermining Islamic society.
This smear campaign culminated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banning the implementation of the guidelines nine months ago – a ban that the Rouhani administration has evidently come to publicly endorse. Since then, both factions of the regime have continued to issue various warnings regarding the supposed threats posed by the United States and its allies, either directly or through espionage or subversion. In recent days, these warnings have been fueled by the political conflicts surrounding US-led airstrikes on Syria in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s domestic use of chemical weapons.
On Wednesday, Newsweek reported that Supreme Leader Khamenei had teased a prospective “intelligence war” and had urged other countries within Iran’s sphere of influence to create a unified front against the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The report also highlighted recent contacts between Iranian officials and some would-be members of that unified front, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and officers in the Iraqi “Popular Mobilization Front,” some elements of which have vowed to expel the US from the region.
For his part, President Rouhani struck a similar, albeit more subdued tone on Wednesday, as the Islamic Republic celebrated its annual Army Day. Al Jazeera reported that amidst military parades and bold claims of technological advancement, Rouhani dismissed foreign pressure his country’s ballistic missile program, declaring that Iran would never “wait for approval” before developing or procuring “any weapon we need.”
Rouhani also accused the US of flooding the region with arms and driving ongoing conflict. However, the US presented evidence last year of Iran’s provision of advanced missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen. And while Iran is a party to negotiations aimed at a political solution to the civil war in Syria, Iran-backed forces in that war have been repeatedly accused of violating ceasefires in the interest of destroying all organized opposition to Assad before bringing the war to a close.