A telegram to Tehran: ‘Don’t try to silence your own people’

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A telegram to Tehran: ‘Don’t try to silence your own people’

Social media networks created and hosted overseas are popular in Iran. Among the most favored apps is Telegram, the online instant messaging service, which has about 40 million users in Iran. Many small-business owners use it as a platform for commerce, an invaluable tool when the economy is collapsing.

A small demonstration against the state of the economy, which began late last year in the city of Mashhad, soon spread around the country and turned into a national protest aimed at overthrowing the regime. The Iranian authorities blamed Telegram for the unrest. The app, along with Instagram and WhatsApp, was blocked, and Internet speeds throughout the country were reduced to prevent the rapid spread of information about the protests. The regime even blamed Pavel Durov, the exiled Russian entrepreneur who created Telegram, for starting the protests with the help of foreign intelligence services.

Since then, the Iranian public have put pressure on President Hassan Rouhani’s government to restore access to the Telegram app. However, the messages emerging from Washington — most recently from the new national security adviser, John Bolton — are that when US President Donald Trump announces his decision on the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, it is increasingly likely that he will declare America’s withdrawal from the agreement. This alarms Tehran. They fear a tense atmosphere among ordinary Iranians, who are likely to voice their disapproval. This makes it more likely that, far from easing restrictions on messaging apps such as Telegram, the regime is likely to tighten them.

Already, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced last week that he was closing his Telegram channel and switching to a local service provider. His decision reflects a policy of encouraging other officials to do the same, in preparation for permanently blocking foreign communication apps.

Perhaps the regime is taking precautions to ensure that if more spontaneous demonstrations erupt, it will not be taken by surprise, as it was before, and will retain the upper hand in managing the protests. The first step is to remove foreign social networks with encrypted messages that the authorities cannot read or spy on. 

Iranian anger and frustration is directed mainly at the state of the economy. Blocking or banning Telegram and Instagram in the face of protests would only make matters worse, because of the harm it would do to small businesses. 

Camelia Entekhabifard

However, the confidentiality supplied by foreign platforms is important for Iranians. They do not trust local Internet services, despite assurances by Khamenei that intrusions into online privacy are “haram,” and a pledge by communications minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi that Iranian networks offer the same guarantees of confidentiality as foreign platforms. “No message is read, and no information is communicated to anyone,” he told parliament.

Iranian anger and frustration is directed mainly at the state of the economy. Blocking or banning Telegram and Instagram in the face of protests would only make matters worse, because of the harm it would do to small businesses. 

If Trump decides to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, or if he refuses to waive economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, the shock to Iranian society and its economy would be profound. Prices of goods and services, and foreign exchange rates, are likely to soar, and Iran’s currency would collapse. If the regime reacts by banning Telegram, the public reaction could spiral out of control. 

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is in New York to attend a UN meeting on building and sustaining peace. Perhaps he will use the event as an opportunity to exercise diplomacy and try to influence the White House before the deadline on May 12. Being in New York gives Zarif the platform to appear on US media and express his government’s view and choices in case of US withdrawal. Indeed, Rouhani said on Saturday that the regime was preparing responses that would be both “expected and unexpected.”

The regime so badly wants to preserve the deal that it will keep its own people hostage over popular social networks. But with or without Telegram, Iranians will make their own choices. 

  • Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian-American journalist, political commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself By Telling the Truth (Seven Stories Press, 2008). Twitter: @CameliaFard
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