Telegram had already achieved widespread popularity in the Islamic Republic and specifically among civil and political activists, largely because of the perception that it is comparatively safe from government monitoring. Other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook remain popular, as well, despite having been banned for years. The blockage of such websites is routinely circumvented by a tech savvy population through the use of virtual proxy networks. This does not, however, prevent the government from identifying users, and as a result there are regular reports of Iranians being arrested and prosecuted for social media posts deemed to be insulting to government officials or Islamic sanctities.
The CHRI report notes that the letter signed by 170 of Iran’s 290 members of parliament not only called for the expansion of the social media ban to permanently include platforms like Telegram, but also urged more action to control the use of VPNs. It is unclear what this action might entail, although some Iranian authorities have spent years teasing the idea of a national internet, or “halalnet”, that is effectively closed off from the World Wide Web so as to only allow domestic access to contents that are approved by the clerical regime. However, there has evidently been little progress toward this goal since it was first introduced, no doubt owing to the project’s technical complexity and prohibitive expense.
But this is not to say that bans on social media have no impact on communication within the Islamic Republic. The need for usage of VPNs adds another barrier to access, which not all Iranians are equally equipped to overcome. Current estimates indicate that Telegram is used by approximately half of Iran’s population of 80 million. Those estimates would presumably be prone to unspecified decreases if conservative Iranian MPs were successful in their push for a permanent ban on Telegram.
Their success would also deal another blow to President Hassan Rouhani’s reputation as a moderate voice within the Iranian government and a potential driver of progress toward a freer and more open Iranian society. Rouhani’s first-term election in 2013 was followed by widespread electoral victories for other supposedly reformist politicians, who echoed Rouhani’s progressive-sounding campaign promises. Yet figures such as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, as well as political groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran have declared that the domestic situation in the Islamic Republic has actually worsened in many ways since Rouhani took office.
The recent protests and the government’s reaction to them are arguably evidence of this. The first demonstrations were said to be focused on the persistence of poor economic conditions for ordinary Iranians even after the nation received sanctions relief under its nuclear deal with six world powers and subsequently heard guarantees from the Rouhani administration that the rates of poverty and unemployment had already fallen. Some protesters disputed such claims while others insisted that they made no tangible difference to the population as a whole. Additionally, as the protests spread, the message broadened to include declarations of more wide-ranging disappointment over former support of the Rouhani presidency.
It was an institution controlled by the president, namely the Supreme National Security Council that lifted the temporary ban on Telegram after two weeks. This move, together with Rouhani’s public statements acknowledging the protester’s political and social demands and their right to express grievances, were likely aimed at preserving some of the administration’s moderate credentials. But the significance of those credentials is called further into question by the failure of a Rouhani-led reformist faction to override conservative calls for more comprehensive censorship.
Even in instances where that faction has seemingly gained the upper hand, there have been serious doubts about whether the theocratic system would allow reformist legal changes to remain in place. As one example, the parliament recently reduced the sentencing guidelines for certain non-violent drug crimes, leading to media reports that death sentences could be vacated for as many as 4,000 inmates. But weeks later, there is no clear evidence that these inmates are being taken off of death row, and some experts on Iran’s human rights record have speculated that the old guidelines would remain in place in practice after the initial reporting had given the impression of progressive change.
This contrast between announced policies and actual practice is by no means unique.
Agence France Presse reported on Monday that the renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh had become involved in the case of an unidentified Iranian woman who vanished after being arrested for appearing without her legally mandate hijab in a photograph which went viral on the internet and social media. The photograph was taken during a separate street protest in Tehran one day before the Mashhad protests that sparked the nationwide uprising. AFP pointed out that this was also the day local authorities announced they would be taking a softer approach to violations of the Islamic dress code, no longer arresting women for “bad hijab”.
Eye-witness reports of the young woman’s arrest, together with her supporters’ inability to locate her afterwards, contradict the claims of more permissive policing. And speaking more generally, women’s rights issues have been a source of considerable contrast between public claims of progress under the Rouhani administration and actual, regressive practices. As another example, CHRI reported last Friday that female musicians were still being banned from public performance throughout the country as local authorities stepped in to enforce hardline Islamist guidelines of public behavior, even as the president issued superficial calls for less interference in public life.
Forthcoming restrictions on social media could present another example of this same trend, with Rouhani appearing at first to defend the people’s access to information, only for his statements to be overridden by hardline authorities. Particularly in the wake of mass protests, many of the president’s erstwhile supporters may find little comfort in his public statements on such matters if they are not backed up by recognizable, concrete moves to safeguard freedom of speech.