Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff

INU - On Tuesday, a series of clashes between Iranian security forces and the Sufi religious sect known as Gonabadi dervishes resulted in several deaths and hundreds of arrests. To some extent, this development can be seen as an outgrowth of the much broader conflict between the Iranian regime and anti-government protesters, which came to a head in early January. According to Iranian opposition groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran, relevant demonstrations have continued to the present day, albeit on a smaller scale than the mass uprising which was repressed by security forces after spreading to well over 100 Iranian cities.

The continuation of these demonstrations has occurred in spite of an ongoing crackdown on political activists and other perceived threats to the stability of the clerical regime. This crackdown established connections between the January uprising and the Sufi protests, in that the latter phenomenon reportedly resulted from rumors that an arrest warrant had been issued for Gonabadi leader and liberal activist Ali Tabandeh. And after those protests demonstrated opposition to the regime’s suppression of dissent, the response demonstrated the continuation of the tactics involved in that suppression.

The CHRI reported on Wednesday that security forces had apparently carried out arrests of Gonabadi dervishes throughout the country, following that clashes that took place in the capital city of Tehran. The Gonabadis’ channel on the Telegram messaging app suggested that more than 3,000 individuals had been arrested, whereas Iranian authorities acknowledged only one tenth of this number.

This report is strongly reminiscent of the NCRI’s accounts of the January uprising and subsequent crackdown. Although the government initially claimed that only a few hundred arrests had been carried out in response to the demonstrations, one Iranian Member of Parliament later acknowledged a figure well in excess of 3,000. Meanwhile, the NCRI continues to maintain, as it did then, that the actual figure exceeds 8,000. The higher arrest figures contribute to higher levels of anxiety about further repression tactics including torture and execution, especially in light of explicit threats of execution from the Iranian judiciary, accompanied by at least a dozen accounts of persons being tortured to death while in detention.

The connections between the January uprising and the Gonabadi protests also extend to broader concerns regarding free speech and access to information in the Islamic Republic. This fact was highlighted on Wednesday by IW, with the publication of an article about the discussions about the Telegram app that had emerged in the wake of the clash with security forces. Some Iranian Telegram users reported problems in accessing the app, leading to speculation that it had been blocked by government authorities once again, just as it had been while the January protests were at their peak.

At that time, restrictive measures varied according to time and place, but they included brief outright bans on the service. As the demonstrations began to subside, there was some talk of those obstructions becoming permanent, as they had with Twitter in the wake of the 2009 Green Movement, where the microblogging platform played a major organizational role. Iranian authorities ultimately decided against a permanent ban on Telegram, reportedly under pressure from businesses who had come to rely on the app for domestic advertising and commerce.

Although the more recent outages rekindled concerns about such permanent obstruction, it was later reported that the source of this problem was on Telegram’s end and was not the result of government restrictions. But the absence of such measures in this case does not mean that Iranian authorities have accepted Telegram as a fixture of Iranian society. Quite to the contrary, IranWire and other outlets have recently reported on a push by hardline officials and commentators to encourage broad-based adoption of alternatives which might allow the regime to obstruct the popular messaging app at a later date, with fewer negative consequences for itself.

Telegram has become popular throughout Iranian society but particularly among the activist community, due in part to its perceived security relative to other social media platforms. Telegram’s executives have also been resistant to pressures from the Iranian government, including demands that local content be moved to servers inside the Islamic Republic. This has allowed anti-government sentiments to spread more easily through that channel than through others, but it has also fueled efforts by Iranian political and religious authorities to portray the service as socially damaging.

These narratives were highlighted on Wednesday by The Iran Project, which reported on recent statements by Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the Iranian Minister of Information and Communications Technology, regarding efforts to promote the use of locally-developed messengers and other applications. “We won’t allow just any content to be published in this space,” he vowed, adding that the economic necessity of digital technology is no reason for Iran to accept foreign-based content.

Jahromi’s remarks made reference to the theoretical national information network, or halalnet, that would effectively cut off Iranian cyberspace from the global internet, allowing in only materials that are approved by the clerical regime. Although touted for years as a thorough solution, this project has also been dismissed by tech experts as impractical and cost-prohibitive. Nevertheless, Jahromi and others continue to insist upon its cultural necessity, as evidenced by the minister’s remarks portraying an open internet as harmful to Iranian children.

The nation’s youth in general is a particular target for restrictions on access to information. This trend is no doubt influenced by the remarkably young average population of the Islamic Republic, and by the fact that social and political differences between the Iranian regime and its people are most prominently on display among the lower age demographics. In fact, according to a recent statement by Rasoul Sanai, the political affairs deputy for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as many as 80 percent of the persons arrested in the January uprising were under the age of 30.

Such observations may encourage Tehran to use locally-developed alternatives as a means not only for influencing young Iranians with propaganda but also for spying on that same demographic, for which the internet and social media are especially popular. This threat was the focus of a recent NCRI report, which was picked up by Fox News on Wednesday.

The report noted that the regime’s efforts to spy in cyberspace reached new heights shortly after Telegram was banned during the January protests. Additionally, some of those who were arrested at that time were pressured to “leave the Telegram environment and enter the controlled environment of Mobogram,” a domestic alternative, according to the NCRI. That same report indicates that this and other state-approved social media networks are little more than clones of their internationally popular predecessors, with spyware added.

In its coverage of the same NCRI report, The Sun emphasized the potential international reach of these compromised networks over the long term. By presenting themselves as a means to communicate in Farsi with family inside Iran, these apps could be downloaded by users throughout the world, allowing agents of the Islamic Republic to gain access to contact lists and monitor communications, potentially exposing domestic activists who would be comparatively shielded by Telegram’s security features.

In recent months, it has been widely reported that the Iranian government was stepping up its foreign cyber surveillance and hacking efforts, and that its capabilities had increased to such an extent that these efforts pose a serious threat to Western interests. The Long War Journal highlighted this trend on Wednesday in its commentary on the Worldwide Threat Assessment that was presented by the US Director of National Intelligence last week.

According to that commentary, cyber spying activities were given greater attention, alongside domestic unrest, in comparison with previous years’ assessments. However, it also notes that the document described alleged restraint in these activities over the past year, at least where Western targets are concerned. The Long War Journal points to the lack of a clear rationale for this supposed change, and it offers several hypotheses including the possibility that Iran is “just opportunistically lying low.”

Notably, this is precisely the conclusion suggested by the NCRI in discussion of its report on Iranian spyware. The Sun quoted the organization’s Deputy Direct Alireza Jafarzadeh as saying that recent efforts involving Mobogram and other platforms had been focused on the domestic population, but also that this constituted an experimentation phase after which the same tactics might be applied to stepped-up spying efforts targeting Western countries.

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