In the midst of rising unrest, the Iranian government shut off internet services for much of the country. Due to its state controlled telecoms firm, the government is able to easily and effectively block international internet traffic to its citizens. They are even able to block international traffic while still preserving vital access for its government agencies (Baraniuk). This move came in response to rising protests in the country.
The protestors initially took to the streets in response to a considerable hike in gas prices, when Iran’s National Oil Company announced “at least a 50% increase in gas prices.” The protests grew violent, including “clashes between protesters and riot police, damage to public property, and tires and garbage burning on the ground. Gunshots were also heard” (Paget). According to the UN human rights office, at least 7,000 people have been arrested as protests continue in Iran. Additionally, hundreds of people have been killed, with reports of “security forces firing on protestors” with impunity. The UN has demanded that those who are “arbitrarily detained” be released immediately. The Supreme Leader himself supported the decision to raise gas prices, and “blamed opponents and foreign enemies.” He implied that international enemies of Iran were behind the “breaches of security” (France-Presse). The internet shutdown, therefore, is ostensibly an attempt to cut off protestors from these outside forces.
According to Freedom House, Iran is not free, and they “fall short of democratic standards due in part to the influence of the hard-line Guardian Council.” The Guardian Council is an unelected body that vets candidates and can disqualify ones disloyal to the clerical leadership (“Freedom in the World”). Rahmani Fazli, the current interior minister, addressed the right of the people to protest. He stated that although citizens had the right to protest, “the country’s security and the people’s calm are the top priority for the law enforcement and our security and military forces” (Paget). Iranian citizens had used the internet as a place to spread discontent over the new tax, and gave them a platform on the world stage. It is interesting that the interior minister phrased his statement through the guise of true democratic rights, as if the Iranian government was democratic at all. The internet shutdown shows that the Iranian government is willing to suspend basic human rights in order to stop protests. Although Iran does hold regular elections, all true authority lies with the Supreme Leader who most approve the decisions made in the parliament.
The White House released a statement that included a condemnation of “the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators,” and classified the Iranian government as a “cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people and embarks on a crusade for personal power and riches” (Paget). This quote hints at the complicated United States-Iran relationship stemming from the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, where the monarchy was replaced by a new theocratic regime. The deposed Shah was supported by the United States government, and Iran used to serve as a pro-western regime in the middle east. This regime change culminated in the Iranian Hostage Crisis, where US diplomats were held hostage as leverage. Today, Iran’s relationship with the West remains complicated, largely surrounding their nuclear development. In 2015, the United States and European allies signed the JCPOA, a nuclear deal with Iran, in order to prevent them from creating functional nuclear weapons. In a highly questionable move, the Trump Administration decided to withdraw the United States from that agreement and reimpose tariffs on Iran. European countries have remained in the agreement, but this move raises fears that Iran’s nuclear development could continue (“Iran”).
The shutdown implemented in Iran represents a larger trend in the age of the internet. Josephine Wolff of the Washington Post states that “Blacking out the Internet has become a popular tactic for governments hoping to quell internal rebellion and protest. In the past year alone, there have been more than 100 shutdowns in 29 countries.” Similar tactics have been employed in countries such as India, a country that Freedom House rates as “Free” (“Freedom in the World”). The Indian government shut off the internet and phone service in Kashmir, where there is unrest surrounding the region’s autonomy (Wolff). This event shows how strategies like internet blackouts can still be used in countries that are considered free. In the end, it exposes the critical importance of internet infrastructure in political movements. Wolff suggests that “An Internet shutdown functions less as a communications blackout for its own citizens than as a news blackout for any would-be external observers or supporters.” She also points out the futility of this goal, as images featuring the bloody response of security forces were circulated once the blackout finished.
This failure truly speaks to the immense challenge of cutting off a country to the internet and the outside world. It also speaks to the weakness of the Iranian regime for them to resort to an ineffective move. At this time, the Iranian government does not truly have the ability to control the internet indefinitely. However, governments will continue to attempt to control the internet and its ability to spread information and ideas. The question remains whether this is truly possible, as the internet continues to embed itself into everyday life.
Baraniuk, Chris. “Iran’s Internet Blackout Reaches Four-Day Mark.” BBC News, BBC, 20 Nov. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50490898.
Board, Editorial. “Iran’s Bloody Repression of Protests Was an Answer to the Trump Administration.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Dec. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/irans-bloody-repression-of-protests-was-an-answer-to-the-trump-administration/2019/12/06/d90adf4a-16bd-11ea-a659-7d69641c6ff7_story.html.
France-Presse, Agence. “At Least 7,000 People Reportedly Arrested in Iran Protests, Says UN.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Dec. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/06/at-least-7000-people-reportedly-arrested-in-iran-protests-says-un.
“Freedom in the World 2019.” Freedom House, 8 Apr. 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019.
“Iran.” Nuclear Threat Initiative – Ten Years of Building a Safer World, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/.
Paget, Sharif. “Protesters Warned That Iran’s Security Forces May Intervene.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Nov. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/17/middleeast/iran-protests-gas-prices-intl/index.html#.
Wolff, Josephine. “Iran Cutting off Its Internet Wasn’t a Show of Strength. It Was a Sign of Panic.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Dec. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/12/09/iran-cutting-off-its-internet-wasnt-show-strength-it-was-sign-panic/.