Analysis by PMOI/MEK
Iran, March 31, 2021—While the Iranian society is in an explosive state and the public anger is increasing, the regime has intensified its measures to censor online services and block social media networks. The goal is to stop the spread of news about protests and prevent communities from organizing protest rallies. But many state-run media are warning that such measures can have destructive consequences.
Hassan Karami, the commander of the Special Forces unit of the State Security Forces, said on March 29, “Today our enemies and ill-wishers of the establishment use the cyberspace as an important instrument to infiltrate our culture.”
On March 21, in his Nowruz address, regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei called for more control on social media. “In our country, some take pride in not controlling the cyberspace, but this should be no cause to be proud of,” Khamenei said. The regime’s supreme leader further added that “the enemy” is using cyberspace to “discourage the people” and ordered: “Cyberspace must be managed and not be left to be used by the enemy against the establishment.”
Following Khamenei’s remarks, Hossein Salami, the top-commander of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), said on March 23, said that the IRGC will restore control over cyberspace.
“We will implement the leadership’s will,” Salami said.
But Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, the regime’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, said, “Blocking sites as before is no longer feasible, because there is advanced encryption and satellite tools will soon become ubiquitous… The generation gap in cyberspace is serious. This gap cannot be filled with censorship.”
It is worth noting that before being appointed to the information and communication ministry, Azari Jahromi was longtime intelligence officer and a torturer. He was extensively involved in spying and monitoring efforts and has led many efforts to set up a technical infrastructure that would allow the regime to discover the communications of activists and political dissidents. During the 2019 protests, Azari Jahromi cut off internet access for several days to prevent the news of the protests from spreading. He has also been engaged in a large project to develop one of the most sophisticated internet censorship regimes in the region. The fact that he is acknowledging to the futility of internet censorship measures is very telling.
The censorship deadlock
There are two reasons for the regime’s deadlock in controlling online activities. First is the huge explosive potential of Iran’s society. The population, especially the youth, are fed up with the tyranny and corruption of the regime. They use every possibility to organize protests and to reveal the regime’s corruption and repression. And as we’ve seen in the past couple of years, despite the regime’s extensive efforts to block access to online communication tools, the people of Iran have always found ways to circumvent censorship and have their voices heard.
Second is technological advances that are making it harder and eventually impossible to block access to internet and social media. Satellite internet technology is becoming more prevalent and in the next few months, low-orbit satellite internet will be available over Iran’s airspace. The satellite transceivers will be available in neighboring countries and importing them into Iran will only be a matter of logistics. And these technologies are also becoming more resilient against mass signal filtering techniques that the regime uses to block access to satellite channels.
In this regard, Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief-of-Staff of the regime’s Armed Forces, warned, “With the advent of satellite internet technology, steps must be taken to ensure that our cyberspace defense system will not be deprecated.”
But other regime officials are also admitting that efforts to block internet access are becoming increasingly futile, including regime analyst Abbas Abdi who compared the regime’s internet techniques to a “passenger car trying to pull a tractor out of a swamp.”
Fear of protests
At the same time, regime officials are increasingly afraid of the role social media plays in shaping protest movements.
Ali Malek Shahkoohi, the IRGC commander in Golestan province, warned on March 25, “The [regime’s] sworn opponents and enemies tried to divide and create insecurity in the province through social networks and cyberspace and their internal agents by abusing the Gonbad incident.”
Shahkoohi’s remarks came on the heels of a large protest rally in the city of Gonbad Kavus following a security agent raped two young girls. The outraged people of the city took to the street and protested the regime’s repression and clashed with security forces.
Also Tehran’s prosecutor, Ali Alghasi Mehr expressed concern on March 13 that social media channels have had an effective impact in organizing protests.
The half-measures, empty threats, and expressions of utter concern further highlight the regime’s deadlock in preventing Iran’s rebellious population from organizing and having their voices heard.