Nearly a week after Iran’s government imposed a near-total Internet and mobile data blackout amid protests over a rise in gas prices, its connectivity to the rest of the world remains extremely limited and reflects what researchers and activists claim, disputed by Iran, is a “tool of repression” used by regimes from Ethiopia to Venezuela.
But the shutdown in Iran, which began Nov. 17 and remains at about 15% of normal levels, according to NetBlocks, a firm that tracks cybersecurity, has not only allowed officials in Tehran to exert control over information about the unrest.
It has also cut off Iranians from their friends and family abroad, seemingly strengthened the Trump administration’s perception that its “maximum pressure” policy on Iran is working after Washington exited the nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions, and further obscured what’s happening and who’s to blame in a Middle Eastern nation whose political and economic isolation has fluctuated in the four decades since its 1979 revolution that ushered in its now entrenched Islamic Republic.
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Marcin de Kaminski, a technology and human rights expert at Civil Rights Defenders, a Sweden-based rights watchdog, said Internet blackouts are part of a growing trend of governments trying to shut their citizens off from the world during fraught moments.
“They use it to limit freedom of expression or freedom of assembly and quite often it’s connected to elections or conflict or to different forms of civil unrest. This is happening in many different contexts from Uganda to Burma (also known as Myanmar),” he said.
Ethiopia has been intermittently shutting down Internet access since a failed coup in June. Venezuela periodically blocks access to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services that require Internet or mobile data access as part of an ongoing effort to stymie political opposition groups and prevent the efficacy of mass protests. India shut off Kashmir’s Internet access more than three months ago amid political upheaval.
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The protests in Iran accelerated after the government increased gas prices by 50% at a time when the sanctions reinstated by President Donald Trump have contributed to soaring inflation and stagnating salaries. The World Bank forecasts that Iran’s economy will shrink by 8.7% this year, a consequence of plummeting revenues from blocked oil exports and restrictions on its petrochemicals, metals, mining and maritime sectors. Key consumer goods and some essential medicines and supplies can be hard to get.
“When I was in Iran in March there were people standing in lines to buy government rations and subsidized meat,” said Hoda Katebi, a Chicago-based Iranian American writer and community organizer who has published a book about Iran’s underground fashion industry. “Nothing’s coming in. The currency is worthless.”
Iran’s currency has lost more than half of its value against the dollar since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions following its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Katebi spoke to USA TODAY on the sidelines of VOICES, an annual gathering for global fashion industry leaders and trailblazers that takes place near Oxford, England. At the event, Katebi appeared on a panel with Shirin and Shiva Vaqar – Iranian sisters who had traveled to England from Tehran to talk about their eponymous fashion label.
“It’s very hard for us, not just as emerging designers but as Iranians,” said Shiva Vaqar. “We face lots of sanctions and restrictions. Sourcing fabrics, finding production houses, convincing them to make our pieces . … We have problems sending our products outside Iran. (We don’t have) FedEx, (the) banking (system) is on lockdown.”
Still, she said, “We try to make it.”
Katebi and the Vaqar sisters, who are longtime friends, had not been able to communicate with each other ahead of the event because of Iran’s Internet crackdown. Katebi said she has not been able to reach her family in Iran.
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Amir Rashidi, an Internet security and digital rights specialist, said Iran has previously weighed the idea of creating different levels of access to the Internet. He pointed to a Nov. 1 interview with Hamid Fatahi, a senior official in Iran’s ministry of information and communications technology, in which Fatahi discusses the possibility of partitioning access based on “social class” or the “occupational needs of users.”
It was not immediately clear if Iran is still considering such an initiative, which could be used to suppress dissenting voices. China and Russia have either taken steps or are experimenting with ways to route Internet traffic through state-controlled channels. Iran’s domestic banks, hospitals, government agencies and other major state infrastructure and services such as the police have remained connected to the Internet during the blackout, according to digital security experts and Iranians contacted by USA TODAY.
Over the last week, demonstrators in Iran set fire to banks and police stations and ransacked public office buildings and blocked roads, according to rights groups. Amnesty International has said that at least 100 Iranians have been killed in the protests as security services have sought to disperse crowds by firing live ammunition.
Some Iranians have found workarounds for limited Internet access. Photos and video footage that have trickled out of Iran have appeared to corroborate the claims of violence, but Iran has dismissed Amnesty’s death figures as propaganda.
“Amnesty’s report is based on anti-Iranian sources and those sources are not reliable,” Mohammad Farahani, the editor-in-chief of the Mizan News Agency, an official news site that covers Iran’s judiciary, told USA TODAY in a direct message via social media.
“People (in Iran) have the right to protest just like anywhere else but those who burn banks and stores are not protesters (they are rioters),” he said.
Iranian authorities have sought to partly blame the unrest on dual-national agitators with ties to foreign governments. Iran’s semi-official Fars New Agency reported Wednesday that “thugs arrested during the recent riots confessed they received $60 for each place set on fire.” The Fars report did not say who may have been behind the payments.
But Sina Toossi, a research associate at the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-D.C.-based organization that seeks to promote links between Americans and Iranians, said that the “the Iranian government does not tolerate peaceful assembly for ordinary people to air their grievances … If the Iranian government is sincere about making a distinction between protests and rioters, it should at the minimum facilitate this first step in allowing people to air their grievances publicly.”
Toossi said that his WhatsApp groups with family and friends in Iran that were always a “feed of pictures and messages” have, since Nov. 17, “fallen ominously silent.”
A senior Iranian diplomat in Europe who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue said that the Internet was disconnected to ensure that Iranians weren’t “misinformed and bombarded with fake news.”
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Included in this “fake news,” according to Iranian officials but also many Iranians who would like closer relations with the West and don’t necessarily sympathize with their government or its heavy-handed tactics, but who nevertheless object to interventions by officials in the Trump administration, including the president himself, is an effort to frame every protest in Iran as a sign that the regime is about to be toppled in a popular uprising.
“There’s just so much more to it,” said Masoud Golsorkhi, a London-based Iranian-born magazine editor who was at the VOICES event in Oxford this week.
Still, late Thursday Trump tweeted that “Iran has become so unstable that the regime has shut down their entire Internet System,” adding “They want ZERO transparency, thinking the world will not find out the death and tragedy that the Iranian Regime is causing!”
That same day the U.S.’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said that he had “asked the Iranian protestors to send us their videos, photos and information documenting the regime’s crackdown on protestors. The U.S. will expose and sanction the abuses.”
And on Friday, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran’s information minister, Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, for his role in “wide-scale Internet censorship.”
Yet Toossi cautioned that “U.S. officials shouldn’t conflate Iranians’ expression of their legitimate grievances and anger with their own government as a welcoming of new U.S. interference in Iran’s internal affairs,” the high-water mark of which was a 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that unseated Iran’s democratically elected prime minister.
“U.S. intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs has a long, ugly history and has only made matters worse for the Iranian people and regional stability,” he said.