After conferring with “experts,” the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered them to “do something about cyberspace.”
The Secretary of the influential Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, related the Supreme Leader’s comments in a joint session of the Assembly of Experts Jan. 25, according to Tasnim news agency, which is run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“Cyberspace is a curse threatening our lives,”the 91-year old Jannati lamented, adding “I have already said that it is impossible to totally block the internet, but we can slow it down.”
Jannati went on to call for a “thorough revision” of the government bodies in charge of Internet policy.
Iran’s traditionalist clergy and conservative leaders have always been suspicious of the Internet and social media, which they view as a threat to the foundation of the Islamic Republic.
Jannati pointed to China and Japan as countries that successfully control the Internet. If China and Japan are enjoying peace and security, Jannati argued, “It’s because of their ability to rein in the Internet,” and Iran should follow in their footsteps. Jannati went on to blame the Internet for “recent disturbances,” referring to protests that swept across the country beginning in late December.
Although the reference to China is a well-known and documented fact, it was not clear what Jannati meant by Japan controlling the internet.
Demonstrations voicing anger at increasing economic hardship and lack of freedom began December 28 in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, and swiftly spread to more than 100 cities, leaving twenty five dead and thousands arrested.
During the unrest, Iranian officials blocked the most popular messaging app, Telegram. Facebook and Instagram were already blocked.
Blocking Telegram in Iran triggered a wave of criticism from human rights organizations, and the U.S. government responded by placing several Iranian citizens and legal entities under new sanctions, including the Islamic Republic’s Cyberspace High Council and IRGC’s Center for Cyberspace Defense.
Iranian MPs have since called for government investment in domestic messaging apps that can be more easily controlled, which they would like to see replace foreign apps like Telegram. So far, the government has promised roughly $1,100,000 loans to any companies capable of developing a home grown applications.
A January 2018 report by the New York based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) highlighted the Islamic Republic’s newly expanded abilities to control Iranians’ access to the Internet and monitor online communications.
Referring to the report, titled “Guards at the Gate: The Expanding State Control Over the Internet in Iran,” CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi said, “The Iranian government has now shown the world that it can and will cut its citizens off from the global Internet in total disregard for the rights of the Iranian people.”