Iran‘s ban of Telegram messaging app sparks infighting

Unlike previous efforts to block Facebook, Twitter and satellite TV, last Monday’s ban on the popular Telegram messaging app by Iran’s powerful judiciary is not going over quietly.

Telegram is a messaging service launched in 2013 that serves many Iranians as a kind of combination of Facebook and Whatsapp, allowing people inside the country to chat securely and to disseminate information to large audiences abroad. Until the April 30 decision, the application was widely used by Iranian state media, politicians, companies and ordinary Iranians for business, pleasure and political organizing.

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Telegram is believed to have some 20 million users in Iran out of a total population of 80 million.

“Considering various complaints against the Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organizations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” the government said in a statement announcing the action.

The judiciary’s Culture and Media Court decision cited among its reasons the application’s use by “international terrorist groups” and anti-government protesters, and the company’s refusal to cooperate with Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.

Those who disobey, the statement said, “will be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Although the decision was announced by the judiciary, it was made “at the highest levels,” Iranian Parliament Foreign Policy and National Security Committee President Alaeddin Boroujerdi told Iranian media at the end of March, well ahead of the ban, seemingly a reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The move came after extensive public debate in Iran, some conducted via the messaging service itself, about the limits of free expression, government authority and access to information in the Islamic Republic.

After Boroujerdi’s statement, President Hassan Rouhani and other prominent reformers, who advocate increased freedom while retaining Iran’s current Islamic system of government, argued against the proposed ban, saying that it would “make society anxious.”

Similarly, in the wake of the judiciary’s announcement that the application would be blocked, Information and Communications Technology Minister Muhammad-Javad Azari Jahromi criticized the move on Twitter.

“Citizens’ access to information sources is unstoppable,” he wrote the day after the decision. Whenever one application or program is blocked, another will take its place, he wrote. “This is the unique aspect and necessity of the free access to information in the age of communication.”

Rouhani was even more forthright in his response to the ban in a message posted to Instagram on Friday. “The government policy is… a safe, but not controlled Internet,” he wrote. “No Internet service or messaging app has been banned by this government, and none will be.” He added that the block was “the direct opposite to democracy.”

THE BLOCKING of Telegram “is seen as a means of quelling dissent,” said Prof. Ali Ansari, an expert on modern Iran at Scotland’s St. Andrews University. The ongoing, low-level protests that have gripped Iran in recent weeks, as well as the more widespread demonstrations in December, seem to have been largely organized through Telegram, he said.

“But we can also see it as part of the battle between the judiciary and Rouhani,” Ansari added. “It’s made him look weak. All the ‘liberalization’ that he talked about, it’s just not happening.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli Middle East commentator, said, “Rouhani promised that this was not going to happen. He promised that people were going to have more freedoms. So Rouhani is worried that by banning this, they are hurting his standing among the people of Iran and making him look incompetent.”

Politicians representing more moderate and conservative political visions have battled over the future of the Islamic Republic in recent decades. Supreme Leader Khamenei is aligned with the most conservative elements, while Rouhani is largely supported by the more moderate, reformist camp.

However, Ansari said, “While conservative forces may believe that blocking Telegram will put an end to the protests, they are mistaken – just as Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu would be mistaken to believe that his recent revelation of Iran’s secret nuclear archives will inspire Iranians to revolt, or even to take notice.

“I think this is also where the Iranian authorities themselves are misreading it. They’re constantly seeing some kind of Western agitation,” behind protests, he added. “But in a town where there is 70% unemployment, they don’t need any Western agitation. It’s got nothing to do with the West causing trouble.”

There are more real and immediate concerns than the fate of Iran’s nuclear deal causing the current unrest in which a number of people throughout the country have been killed, Ansari said. They include economic dysfunction, environmental crises and impending massive water shortages.

Telegram claims 200 million users worldwide who are attracted to its promise of communication protected from government prying, especially that of the United States. The application was launched by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov in the wake of former CIA analyst Edward Snowden’s revelations of US government surveillance of ordinary citizens. The fact that Telegram was not an American-designed program like Twitter or Facebook, which could provide access to Western intelligence agencies, was a large part of its appeal, cybersecurity experts have said.

The application’s secrecy, though, has also made it popular among less savory characters. Islamic State members have used Telegram to broadcast propaganda and plan attacks.

The Iranian decision followed a similar move by Russia. On April 16, Russia’s state telecommunications regulator began blocking access to Telegram Messenger after the company refused to comply with an order to give Russian state security access to its users’ secret messages.

According to Javedanfar, the Iranian judiciary and allied forces hesitated before banning Telegram. “But when they saw the Russians do it, that gave them more confidence,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.