An Iranian girl walks next to a wall painting of Iran's national flag while using her cellphone in a street, in Tehran, Iran, April 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

Iran’s hardliners are pressuring moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government to ban popular social networking platform Instagram in their latest bid to keep Iranians disconnected from the wider world.

Last week, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s 39-year-old Minister of Information and Communications Technology, was subpoenaed to the culture and media court operating under the aegis of the judiciary to defend himself over a litany of complaints. These include allegations he is defying a court order mandating that Instagram be blocked.

Other suits include a complaint filed by 150 clerics that Iran’s cyberspace is ridden with “immorality,” which the minister has allegedly failed to address. Another is against one of his tweets celebrating the expansion of the nation’s internet bandwidth. Jahromi was released on bail but the cases are ongoing.

Conservatives dominating Iran’s parliament, judiciary, and branches of the armed forces, and religious traditionalists in seminaries and Friday prayer leaders wield significant influence over the masses.

They have long taken up the cudgel for a “National Information Network,” or a domestic version of the internet, which the Islamic Republic authorities tout as a benign effort to make the public able to do without foreign services while procuring a purified and “halal” internet for Iranians.

Critics say the National Information Network is structured to replace global internet connectivity and if implemented will in practice disconnect Iranian citizens from the outside world.

The initiative, on which a total of at least $1.2 billion has been splurged so far, is expected to deprive millions of Iranians of regular internet access and instead offer them a parochial network of Persian-language news websites, indigenous online platforms with paltry functionality and web-based applications that will be relevant only in a domestic context. The project even envisions its own version of Google’s search engine.

President Rouhani, whose administration is floundering in the final months of its incumbency amid a battered economy squeezed by US sanctions and a lethal pandemic, has rushed to defend his embattled minister.

“They cannot indict anybody for increasing the bandwidth. It was my order. If you wish to indict someone, you should indict me. Bandwidth means the freedom of the people in online businesses,” Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting.

President Hassan Rouhani delivers his 2020 United Nations General Assembly speech online from the capital Tehran. Photo: Iranian Presidency/AFP

The president didn’t name Instagram, but the American photo and video sharing outlet is one of the few international social media platforms still available to Iranians.

In recent years, a constellation of online services, from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and Telegram have been banned by the government or the judiciary, working independently of each other, prodding Iranians to resort to virtual private networks (VPNs) en masse to be able to continue using them.

The hardliners often don’t divulge their true intentions on why they insist foreign social networking platforms, instant messaging applications, discussion forums, international news websites, wikis, video streaming and photo-sharing services should be made unavailable to the public, while knowing that their ideology is widely unpopular.

Their unvarying talking point, however, is that these platforms make the “infiltration” of the enemy into the country possible and decay the morality of the society and the youth.

Against the odds, Iranians have largely disregarded the preaching of authorities and continue to be one of the most tech-savvy people in the Middle East. That’s despite the double whammy of US sanctions depriving them of most new technology and an iron-fisted government clamping down on their civil liberties.

Some estimates put the number of Facebook users in Iran at 40 million, or half of the population. The platform is banned but users have become accustomed to workarounds and proxy servers to access it.

Iranian troops during a military exercise in the Gulf in this image on the Army website. Authorities are accused of using the internet when it suits them while restricting it for ordinary Iranians. Photo: Iranian Army/AFP

In 2018, it was reported that there were 24 million Instagram users in Iran, making it one of the largest markets for the mobile app.

For Iranians, Instagram is not merely a crucible for entertainment and photo and video sharing, but an incubator of their businesses: activities such as advertising and selling clothes, jewelry, shoes, handicrafts, local cuisines and agricultural products.

Ali Rabiei, the spokesman of the government, wrote in an opinion piece carried by the Iran newspaper that there were 400,000 Iran-based Instagram pages with more than 5,000 followers, of which 28.8% were owned by enterprises and retailers. This means there are at least 115,000 Instagram pages that contribute to the economies of nearly 950,000 Iranians.

“Given my specialized studies at the Ministry of Labor, I believe enforcing any restriction or ban on Instagram will be equivalent to forcing around 1 million Iranians into an exodus to unemployment and poverty,” he wrote.

These sorts of prohibitions, usually originating from religious and cultural dogmas, have proved perennially to backfire, according to Rabiei.

He cited the Islamic Republic banning satellite dishes to block access to international broadcasters starting with the 1979 revolution. Now four decades on, almost every household in Iran, even in the most far-flung villages, owns a satellite dish in violation of the official government edicts.

A noted Iranian professor of communication says the ultimate goal behind these types of restrictions is to enable the government’s grip on power and cement its control of citizens’ behavior.

“In general, governments who do not want an informed and educated citizenry, engage in various methods of censorship including limiting the flow of news and information to the general population, particularly those who do not adhere to the establishment’s ideology,” said Yahya Kamalipour, professor of communication at North Carolina A&T State University.

“Therefore, replacing the global internet with a national internet will limit people’s access to vital news and information, allowing the government to control and monitor the flow of information and communication online.”

Employees work at Alibaba’s online travel booking service in Tehran. Cutting off the internet could cripple Iranian businesses. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP

Kamalipour, who is the founding president of the Global Communication Association, believes curtailing public access to platforms such as Instagram will merely degenerate into increased international isolation for Iran.

“Restricting or eliminating Instagram will limit Iranians interaction, communication, commerce, and information exchange, thereby furthering Iran’s isolation in the global community.”

“My hope is that President Rouhani does not cave in and continues to insist on allowing Iranians to have access to Instagram and other digital platforms, including Twitter and Telegram,” he told Asia Times.

Yet state propaganda claiming that foreign online services and social media platforms facilitate the infiltration of adversaries and bring about social and cultural manipulation rings hollow when noting that the majority of Islamic Republic authorities maintain an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Telegram, as well as other platforms, and routinely reach out to domestic and foreign audiences through these mediums.

The president, his cabinet members, the majority of Majlis legislators, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, high-ranking clerics in the Assembly of Experts, state-affiliated pundits and others in the establishment are all regulars on banned social media platforms.

“At minimum, it is hypocritical for Iranian authorities to freely use banned social media sites, often with access to higher internet speeds, while ordinary users have to deal with artificially limited internet speeds and go through VPNs to log on to these same platforms,” said Niki Akhavan, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Media and Communication Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Iran is believed to be enforcing one of the broadest and most sophisticated internet censorship regimes in the world. In the 2020 edition of its annual Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House warned that Iran was harboring plans to make the global internet unavailable to its citizenry.

On a 100-point scale, where 100 shows the greatest degree of internet freedom, the Washington DC-based research organization tagged Iran with a 15, identifying it as the second country out of 65 nations surveyed imposing the most severe online limitations.

In a society blighted by inequalities, corruption, unemployment, poverty and sanctions, the internet in effect functions as a respiratory system allowing the people to experience some degree of freedom and privacy, enrich their time, communicate with beloved ones, relish in online entertainment and make money.

So will it stir indignation if this lifeline is taken away? Sheida Soleimani, an assistant professor of studio art at Brandeis University in the US and an expert in media studies, foresees possible protests in the case of an Instagram ban.

“There is a strong possibility of social unrest, but the root cause of that is much deeper than the ban on social media and Instagram. The economy is completely paralyzed, major factories are closing, inflation is rampant and corruption is widespread.”

An Iranian woman raises her fist through the smoke of teargas at the University of Tehran during protests that rocked the nation in 2018. Photo: AFP

“If there is more social unrest, the tipping point may be because of a ban on Instagram, but the underlying issues will be the driving factor,” she said.

In November 2019, when protests broke out across the country in response to a 300% hike in the price of fuel, Rouhani’s government shut down internet connectivity for 10 days to foil protesters’ plans to organize.

The shutdown cost the national economy at least $240 million, while the communications sector lost $60 million each day the internet was down, according to industry estimates. Many Iran experts fear a shutdown recurrence, with more pessimistic doomsters warning a permanent internet ban could soon be in the offing.