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Effects of January Uprising Still Seen in Battles over the Internet and Iran’s Ruling System

This was previously the focus of a “comprehensive assessment” published in Modern Diplomacy. That piece also examined some of the defining slogans of the protests, which it described as demonstrating “an outright rejection of the status quo and the regime in its entirety.” The IranWire analysis more or less agrees with this assessment and adds a quantitative element by calculating the supposed frequency of some of the most prominent chants. According to that analysis, roughly a quarter of all the observed slogans could be categorized as expressions of opposition to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Indeed, those slogans included the simple “death to the dictator,” an unusually bold chant in a nation where “insults” against the ruling cleric are considered a crime and can even be punished by death. But other chants and protest banners took a broader view, highlighting apparently endemic corruption and mismanagement within the regime that holds Khamenei as its ultimate authority. According to IranWire, about one-tenth of all slogans were explicit statements of opposition to the regime itself; but according to prominent Iranian dissidents and other keen observers, this was the subtext of entire protest movement.

IranWire arguably lent support to this conclusion through its analysis, which confirms that there were a range of economic, social, and political grievances being voiced by the demonstrations, and that these were often tightly interwoven. That is to say, while rampant unemployment was a major driver of the protests, large numbers of the participants recognized this problem as being rooted in the regime’s mismanagement and its wasteful spending on conflicts in Syria and elsewhere, which was also a target of oft-repeated slogans.

Furthermore, as smaller-scale protests continue to the present day, it is perhaps increasingly clear that opposition to the policies of the supreme leader is virtually inseparable from opposition to the structure of the regime as a whole. Al Jazeera reported on Friday that some of the most recent rounds of activism are being driven by frustration over Tehran’s announcement of a ban on the wildly popular Telegram instant messaging app. And while this is further channeling anger at Khamenei, who directly appoints the officials responsible for such things, it is also directing some of that anger at the reputedly pragmatist government of President Hassan Rouhani, who promised to safeguard Telegram but has failed to stand up to hardliners.

Already, the January uprising was characterized by citizens’ widespread expressions of regret over their former embrace of Rouhani’s apparently false promises of moderation and reform. His administration’s unwillingness or inability to prevent the Telegram ban compounds the previous failure to make any progress toward securing release for the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest without charge or trial since 2011.

Al Monitor reported upon the public’s reaction to the Telegram ban on Wednesday, reiterating the familiar observation that most Iranians see through the regime’s efforts to direct their social media activities toward domestic alternatives like Soroush. The report quoted an internet security expert as saying there is no doubt that those alternatives include backdoor access through which the government will be able to easily monitor and censor communications. The same expert also suggests that for persons who were serious about using Telegram for activist and dissident activities, the ban will likely be little more than an inconvenience, as they will begin to access the service through virtual proxy networks, just as many Iranians do with Twitter.

In view of the public’s technical capabilities in this area, an optimistic assessment of the current situation may lead to the conclusion that its greatest impact will be further amplification of popular resentment for the existing regime, both for its hardline and “reformist” factions. This would also be in line with another familiar refrain from the December and January protests, which addressed both those factions by name and said “the whole game is over.” This slogan presumably made up a portion of those that were identified by IranWire as being explicitly opposed to the regime.

To the extent that the Telegram ban reflects poorly on the Rouhani government, that effect is no doubt made worse by the fact that the stepped-up efforts to monitor domestic communications have been accompanied by stepped-up efforts to hack international communications with an eye toward expanding the regime’s persecution of dual nationals and persons with supposedly pro-Western worldviews. In April alone, at least two British-Iranian dual nationals were arrested by the intelligence wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and information just came to light regarding the arrest of another in March.

The IRGC Intelligence Organization was also identified by the Center for Human Rights in Iran as the likely architect of the recent hacking measures, which involved attempts to gain access to the accounts and contact lists for prominent academics and charity workers, as well as known activists. According to Friday’s report, several such phishing attacks were observed just in the first two weeks of April, providing further evidence of Tehran’s increasingly aggressive use of information technology.

Yet this trend is arguably a direct response to an equivalent increase in the Iranian activist community’s aptitude for using similar technologies in its organizing. As Al Monitor and various other outlets point out, the ban on Telegram has been a long time coming but the final push came from the regime’s readiness to blame it for the rapid spread of the nationwide protests at the start of the year.

In fact, the uprising was not the only example of effective online organizing from that same time period. Just one day before the first protests in Mashhad, a woman named Vida Movahed stood on a public utility box to remove her legally mandated head covering and hold it up like a banner. The viral spread of that image on line led to the gesture being repeated by dozens of women and a handful of men, which in turn led to 30 arrests and an evident increase in public debate about the country’s forced veiling laws.

The latest monthly human rights report by Iran Human Rights Monitor strongly suggests that this unwanted debate is as much a threat to the theocratic regime as the protests in which a quarter of the slogans called for the supreme leader to step down. This is the implication of remarks by government-linked religious scholars like Nasser Makarem Shirazi, who said that forced veiling laws, “if undermined will deal a blow to the Islamic nature of the regime and undercut the Islamic aspect of the Islamic Republic; then the country will turn into a republic without Islam.”

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