Reports of Iran’s regime intending to block the popular messaging app, Telegram, is the source of a variety of reactions. If Iran’s rulers had it their way this platform would be blocked as we speak after similar measures temporarily grounded the network following the January uprising.
Various Iranian officials have also expressed their belief that the internet must remain intensely monitored and filtered. This is part of a broad cyber-repression campaign led by Tehran, pushing users towards domestically-made apps that can be monitored by the regime’s security apparatus.
However, even Iranian President Hassan Rouhani posed to oppose such actions due to his concerns of its consequences.
Iranian media outlets are criticizing Rouhani, saying as the President he stands against blocking, while as chair of the Supreme National Security Council he orders such actions. The question is why did Iran lift its initial blocking after the quelling of recent unrests? The answer is simple: social pressures and international backlashes.
In Iran’s current powder keg society any issue can ignite a major movement. On December 28th an increase in the price of eggs sparked a major nationwide uprising. In a matter of just hours protesters were chanting “Death to Khamenei-Rouhani,” referring to the regime’s Supreme Leader and President, respectively.
To this day Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli acknowledges that these protests spread to more than 100 cities, 42 of which witnessed serious unrests. He also went on to confirm that an uprising can begin at any moment in Iran.
When a price hike can result in the most significant crisis for the Iranian regime since the 2009 uprising, rest assured blocking Telegram – used by over 40 million people across the country and the jobs of at least more than half a million people depend on this application – will generate extremely dangerous consequences.
Reactions of this announcement, made by Aladdin Borujerdi, chair of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, saying the decision was made at the highest level, obviously referring to Khamenei himself, are more than telling.
“Blocking Telegram will not result in people shifting towards homegrown platforms. It will backfire,” said Iranian MP Farid Mousavi.
“This will distance the people further from the government,” added Gholamali Jafarzadeh, another Iranian MP.
Censoring the internet at any extent will also come with a heavy global price tag. Considered a violation of freedom of speech and other liberties, the international community has an obligation to condemn such a move by Iran’s regime.
During the few days that Tehran blocked Telegram in January, American political figures and Members of Congress hit back hard. This rendered the U.S. Treasury Department to permit private companies to launch free and high-speed internet access for the Iranian people.
Considering today’s developments throughout the world, escalating international isolation for Iran and significant changes in the U.S. political structure, any move by Tehran can bear unprecedented penalties.
More importantly, from Iran’s perspective, is future uprisings and the society’s explosive atmosphere. Iranian officials are saying Telegram was the main tool used to coordinate and issue calls for continuous demonstrations during the January uprising.
Saeed Hajarian, a political strategist in Iran, describes uprisings in Iran as a retreating wave that returns with far more force.
As a result, Tehran must decide if it has reached the point of no return and has no choice but to block Telegram for good. Iran is no longer choosing between bad or worse. Decisions now are between hard and harder.
Interesting is how in a recent TV interview Iranian Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Jahromi said there are 8,000 dissident Telegram channels. Twice he also mentioned a channel – or group – belonging to the Iranian opposition People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), signaling the very threat Tehran is specifically concerned about in regards to the source of the recent uprising and ongoing protests.
A few weeks ago, another Telegram channel that is allegedly associated to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry and yet criticizes Tehran, placed a thought-provoking post asking:
“Why do people shift towards PMOI-linked channels? True, they have high quality posts. True, they have good video and … but those who do refer to PMOI channels are traitors.”
Ahmad Khatami, a senior member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts and a close figure to Khamenei also voiced concerns most likely mirroring those of the supreme leader:
“Cyberspace has become a major social dilemma and brought the enemy into our homes. Mothers should protect their children against cyberspace that is polluted with the enemy(!) The enemy intends to strike against the state through all means.”
To make matters worse, Iran is facing a very tumultuous period and a very high-risk decision. May 12th marks the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s deadline regarding the Iran nuclear deal.
Tehran has only two options:
succumbing to significantly curbing its ballistic missile program and Middle East meddling, while permitting snap inspections at all sites,
or maintaining its position and bracing for a return of crippling sanctions.
The irony for Iran lies in the fact that both options pave the path for further social uprisings. This leaves Khamenei with no choice but to block, at least temporarily, the very medium fueling the ongoing uprising and accept the consequences.
There is an undeniable reality that senior Iranian regime officials understand far better than anyone. Although the internet is a powerful tool in driving Iran’s protests forward, the very basis is the fact that conditions across the country are ripe for protest snowballing into nationwide uprisings and an all-out revolution.
This article was originally published by Forbes. Mr. Alavi is a political/rights activist focusing on Iran & the Middle East. He also writes in Al Arabiya English, and contributed to The Federalist, The Hill and Raddington Report.