It is not strange that Iran is the only country in the Middle East to block such essential services as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp as part of its continuous blackout policy. Tehran even tampers with the signals of several broadcast channels, blocking its citizens from accessing any external media content.
Of all the international social media applications available, Iranians have been left with the messaging application Telegram.
Telegram was formed by two Russian brothers and is headquartered in Germany. Almost 40 million Iranians use its voice messaging service, while 20 million use the application for texting. Being the only application available, this precious service is in high demand among Iranians who make up roughly a quarter of Telegram’s users worldwide.
However, the government quelled Iranians’ sole source of joy by blocking most of Telegram’s services, including the voice messaging service, under the pretext of protecting national security.
The truth is that the regime blocked the application over fears that it could alter the course of the upcoming elections, a course that has already been engineered.
Thousands of local candidates are “filtered” according to the criteria of Iran’s “democratic religious clerics.” In the end, only those with whom they are satisfied are allowed to run in the elections. It is not a secret system and ultimately no one is allowed to win or even run if the supreme leader does not agree.
The 2009 elections caused a great deal of embarrassment both domestically and internationally because those who took a different stance to the leadership were figures who had been approved by the leaders of the regime to run in the elections.
The regime fears that the messaging app could alter the course of the upcoming elections, a course that has already been engineered.
The supreme leader decided that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would become president and forged the results accordingly. This angered the candidates who had the best chance of winning and led to the famous “Green Movement” uprising, during which many died or were injured and arrested. The memory of the uprising has haunted the authorities who believe this massive antagonistic movement would not have been possible, especially in Tehran, had it not been for Twitter and Facebook.
Indeed, back then, Al Arabiya News Channel relied almost completely on the videos, photos and information it received from those two platforms to cover the events in Iran after the authorities shut down its office and expelled its correspondent. The results were astounding! The regime was in disarray after images of the protests, clashes and injuries were broadcast on international media outlets.
After reading a report published about a month ago in the Los Angeles Times about the influence of Telegram inside Iran, I sensed the regime’s fear and anticipated its next move. The report stated that the security authorities had already begun warning users against sending political messages and forced anyone who owned a channel with over 5,000 subscribers to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture. The government then began a series of arrests targeting active users of the application.
Iran has now shut down most of Telegram’s services, hoping to contain the public sentiment surrounding the parliamentary and presidential elections which will mostly be an encore of the same charade. Results can be partially or completely forged, even after the filtration and suspension of candidates orchestrated during the early stages of the election process.
In a bid to avoid a recurrence of the Green Movement, the regime is concerned with controlling the reactions of Iranians who may take to the streets.
Regarding the presidential elections, no surprises are expected because the approved candidates are carbon copies of one another.
Even former President Ahmadinejad, despite his importance and history, was banned by the supreme leader from running in this election. Ahmadinejad shocked everyone and announced himself as a candidate with a series of clarifications and apologetic statements saying he did not disobey the directives of the supreme leader. He pledged to withdraw from the elections after the first round and said he only participated to support his friend, a presidential candidate, and give him media and public attention.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.