As Iranian Activists Await Western Support, Access to Information Remains in Doubt

“We will be relentless in identifying, exposing, and dismantling Hezbollah’s financial support networks globally,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of the emerging campaign. And Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added, “We will no longer allow corrupt Hezbollah and other Iranian regime cronies to hide their crimes behind front companies.”

Sanders’ remarks suggest that Iran is the ultimate target of such measures, thus contributing to an ongoing war of words between the Trump administration and Iran’s clerical regime. That verbal conflict has recently come to include President Donald Trump’s expression of support for Iranian protests who took to the streets in late December and early January, some of whom repeated unusually bold slogans like “death to the dictator,” in reference to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Supporters of those protests, including various activists in the Iranian expatriate community, have embraced Trump’s commentary but have also urged more concrete action in support of the Iranian Resistance. The focus of this campaign is not limited to the current demonstrations but also includes appeals for American and European action on previous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Iranian regime for the sake of suppressing dissent.

On Thursday, Geneva played host to one aspect of this campaign when human rights experts and the organization Justice for Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran held a civil society hearing to present a mock indictment of Iranian officials who have been linked to mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Some participants in that hearing made direct connections between international silence in the face of the execution of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988 and the perceived international silence in the face of Iran’s crackdown on recent protests.

The announcement of Thursday’s hearing noted, “In light of the recent protests in Iran and the reports of thousands of arrests and numerous deaths in custody, this timely hearing will also provide the historical context for the current conduct of the authorities.”

Intelligence networks associated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran have determined that approximately 8,000 people were arrested in the wake of the protests, and also that 50 individuals had been killed either in shooting incidents involving security forces or under torture inside Iranian jails. The activist community has also established that the regime’s response to the protests has not been limited to those protests themselves but has also included raids on the homes of known activists, along with threats against their families.

The broad nature of the regime’s crackdown has also been highlighted by the overlap between arrests related to January’s mass protests and arrests related to other, reportedly unrelated activist demonstrations. Specifically, Al Jazeera reported on Friday that at least 29 Iranian women had been detained and accused of disturbing the peace after they allegedly contributed to an ongoing campaign against forced veiling.

A 31-year-old woman, Vida Movahed, became a prominent symbol of that campaign in late December when a picture of her standing on a utility box, holding her veil at the end of a stick began to go viral on social media. Her action spurred a number of copycat protests, as well as a campaign to determine here whereabouts after it was reported she had been arrested. She was released last Saturday after a month in detention, but another young woman was taken into custody two days later for undertaking an identical protest.

Nevertheless, Movahed’s release seems to have inspired even more repeat protests, leading to the reported surge in arrests. At the same time, mass anti-government protests were also reportedly ongoing as of Thursday, predictably resulting in some clashes with security forces. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported upon these phenomena and provided details of demonstrations in eight localities, as well as naming six others where protests had also taken place.

A separate report indicated one of those demonstrations, in the city of Rasht, involved several hundred participants. Both reports also noted that authorities had imposed additional restrictions on the internet in an effort to prevent the protests from spreading. Similar reports were commonplace while the mass protests were at their peak in early January. And although a ban on the popular messaging app Telegram was lifted after the protests began to subside, regime authorities have subsequently made public calls for greater restrictions on information in a country where Twitter and Facebook are already technically banned.

Hardliners tend to view internet restrictions as a means of obstructing not only activist organizing but also the spread of information that challenges the country’s Shiite fundamentalist identity, which is partly expressed through the forced veiling laws on the books since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

As Movahed’s story demonstrates, the internet has certainly been a driving force behind women’s rights activism. Indeed, her protest was reportedly an outgrowth of the online campaign My Stealthy Freedom, which called for women to post pictures of themselves unveiling in private places, and which was organized by the exiled Iranian activist Masih Alinejad.

While such activist campaigns are no doubt perceived as serious threats to the clerical regime, that regime’s anxiety about internet communication has presumably been even more inflamed by its encouragement of public dialogue about past instances of government repression, including the 1988 massacre. Last year, Ahmad Montazeri, the son of a founding cleric of the Islamic Republic, released an audio recording online in which his father provided details of that massacre and decried it as the regime’s “worst crime.”

One means by which the regime might prevent these inconvenient information leaks and subsequent public activism is by establishing a National Information Network or “halalnet” that effectively cuts off the Iranian internet from the rest of the world. This has been a dream of censorship authorities for many years, but has also been widely dismissed as impractical. Yet, calls for its implementation have resumed more loudly in the wake of the recent protests, as highlighted in a report by the Associated Press on Monday.

That report quotes Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami as saying, “Cyberspace was the kindling in the fire of the battle. When cyberspace was closed down, the sedition was stopped. The nation does not support a social network that has its key in the hands of the United States.”

In the wake of such commentary, it appears as though authorities have had more success than in the past at getting business to sign onto the concept of a National Information Network. If this trend continues, it will become easier for authorities to limit internet access without creating the risk to commerce that were widely credited with preventing the Telegram blockage from becoming permanent.

Being aware of the power of the internet, expatriate Iranian activists made a point of urging the international community to help safeguard access to it for the Iranian people in the wake of the mass protests. The AP reported that Trump administration officials had apparently met with representatives of tech giants like Google and Facebook to discuss what could be done on this front. But progress was limited, and the report concluded by saying “it remains in question” whether Iranians will still be able to access the internet if protests reemerge.

Many predict that that reemergence is all but inevitable, and reports from the NCRI, Al Jazeera and others suggest that it has already begun. Meanwhile, the reports coming out of Washington suggest that the White House is committed to supporting that movement, even though concrete policies may presently be focused on Iran’s foreign activities and not on its domestic suppression.