Employees work at Alibaba's online travel booking service in Tehran. Further restricting the Internet could cripple Iranian businesses. Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP

Pressure on Iranians is in full swing. The US sanctions, which President Joe Biden has signaled will not be lifted until the Islamic Republic fully complies with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in tandem with mismanagement by Iran’s government agencies and endemic corruption have demolished the people’s livelihoods and left the national economy in shreds.

Add to the many challenges facing Iranians the inauspicious schemes of hardliners and radicals in different establishment sectors, particularly the conservative-dominated parliament, to circumscribe the civil liberties of the public further and strip young Iranians of the means to be digitally connected and communicate with the outside world.

In recent weeks, the moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani has been embroiled in a scuffle with the hardline-ruled judiciary over the latter urging a public ban on the use of Instagram, one of the few social-media platforms that remain available to Iranians.

Concurrently, plans are under way for unveiling of a National Information Network, an indigenous intranet service that critics say will terminate the access of Iranians to global Internet connectivity if implemented fully.

Yahya Kamalipour is a noted Iranian expert on communication and media studies. He is a professor of communication at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, North Carolina A&T State University.

A former professor at Purdue University, Kamalipour (left) is the founding president of the Global Communication Association. Kamalipour is also the editor of the 2021 book Global Media Perceptions of the United States: The Trump Effect.

Asia Times spoke to Professor Kamalipour about how a ban of Instagram in Iran would affect people’s lives, the social repercussions of restricting online freedoms and the nascent plan of “national internet” touted by the Iranian authorities as a home-grown breakthrough.

Kourosh Ziabari: Why are some segments of the Iranian government, particularly conservatives, opposed to President Rouhani’s engagement with the West, insisting on enforcing increased restrictions on the Iranian people’s access to online services and advocating a “National Information Network” to replace the global Internet?

Yahya Kamalipour: The simple answer is maintaining power and control. The two Iranian political factions, namely the hardliners and the progressives, are like the political factions in the US. The recent controversies about the presidential elections that culminated in the pro-Trump’s faction storming the Capitol Building in an attempt to reverse the election results by force is a case in point.

In general, governments who do not want an informed and educated citizenry engage in a variety of 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. 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.

Also read: Iran wages war on Instagram and the internet

Regarding Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, I believe that it is extremely crucial that the internal “anti” rhetoric and slogans are replaced by “pro” global cooperation slogans and actions. Isolation stifles Iran’s progress in every respect. In today’s highly interconnected and interdependent world, no nation can move forward and prosper by disconnecting itself from other nations. In other words, building bridges is much more productive than building walls.

KZ: Instagram is one of the few social-media platforms that still remain available to Iranian users. Do you think the government of President Rouhani will yield to the pressure by hardliners in the parliament, judiciary and the Supreme Council on Cyberspace and block Instagram?

YK: Restricting or eliminating Instagram will limit Iranians’ interaction, communication, commerce, and information exchange, thereby furthering Iran’s isolation in the global community. As illustrated in recent years, the US and international sanctions on Iran have resulted in serious economic hardships, unemployment, dissatisfaction, and shortages of vital supplies such as medicines.

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. Depriving people of access to a wealth of news and information available on the global digital networks hinders education, development, communication, and intercultural interaction. It goes without saying that economic, social, political, and cultural progress necessitates an informed citizenry.

In my opinion, the government must expand, not restrict, global Internet access throughout Iran and at the same time promote digital literacy and social responsibility through educational and media institutions.

Information is a vital commodity and an essential factor in nations’ prosperity and progress; hence it should not be censored or restricted, except in those instances that purveyors intentionally and openly promote hate, immorality, and violence.

For instance, the recent US unrest resulting from the widespread lies and conspiracy theories circulated by [former president Donald] Trump and his supporters that the presidential election was stolen by the Democrats resulted in private companies, not government, preventing him and some of his followers from having access to Twitter, Instagram, and other social-media platforms.

KZ: What would be the social repercussions of a possible ban on Instagram in Iran? The government of President Rouhani has estimated at least 1 million jobs will be lost. Could it trigger social unrest and protests across the country?

YK: It is not easy to assess the possible repercussions, but banning Instagram will certainly impact millions of people and perhaps thousands of businesses that rely on this and other social platforms to buy, sell, and promote products. Chances are good that people will not remain silent and will express their disapproval through demonstration and peaceful civil disobedience.

In view of the crippling international sanctions on Iran and the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, such restrictions will prove to be counterproductive, damaging, and unwise.

KZ: The majority of Iran’s high-ranking authorities, including the Supreme Leader, administration officials, MPs and military figures maintain an active presence on social-media platforms while the broader public is deprived of these services. Many people feel this policy is duplicitous. What is your view?

YK: Being an active social-media user, I am aware of the Iranian political leaders’ presence on the various global platforms. In fact, many of them, particularly Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, use Twitter as a direct channel of communication for commenting on national, regional, and international issues that impact Iran and the Persian Gulf region.

Social-media platforms are indeed de facto people’s right to communicate on the global stage. In view of Iran’s limited formal political relationship with many countries, particularly the United States, these platforms become extremely vital and necessary.

While most Iranian top officials have access to the social platforms, it is hypocritical to prevent the general population from having the same access to the global networks.

KZ: Observers of Iran expect the next president will be a hardliner or an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander. Should we brace for renewed Internet restrictions along with other limitations on civil liberties?

YK: It is a possibility, but the disruptive behavior of Trump’s administration and his hardline supporters, including most of the Republican Party members, should serve as a lesson to all democratic and non-democratic nations and their leaders. Restrictions, force, lies, conspiracy theories, and intimidation will often result in chaos, unrest, demonstrations, and social polarization.

One hopes that all government officials learn from their own mistakes and other nations’ mistakes and avoid trampling on the people’s civil liberties and their right to know.

KZ: Do you believe the ultimate plan of the Islamic Republic is to institute a permanent ban on the Internet and World Wide Web services and introduce a national internet like the Kwangmyong firewall in use in North Korea? Will the Iranian public acquiesce to this relapse?

YK: Well, I cannot predict their future plans, but recent trends and developments attest to the possibility of implementing an ominous self-contained and restrictive national internet that will allow government officials to easily monitor all online activities and impose effective censorship and consequently, stifling any opposing voices and views.

Is Iran using North Korea as role model? I hope not. And what will be the public reaction to such ominous restrictions remains to be seen, but my hope is that they will not encounter this issue and will not be deprived of having access to the World Wide Web.

Collectively, media professionals, educators, and information professionals must understand the realities of the digital age by ensuring that their voices are heard and that the basic principle of free access to news and information is upheld.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.