January 17, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1370

The Popular Uprising In Iran 2017-2018: Lessons Learned By The Regime

January 17, 2018 | By U. Kafash and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1370


The Iranian regime is attributing the December 2017-January 2018 popular uprising in the country to two main factors. One is the public's access to the West-based Internet, and the other is the involvement of Iran's enemies, who seek to bring down the Islamic revolutionary regime.

Regime Officials Blame Uprising On Access To The Internet

In addition to the regime's claim that it was the public's access to the West-based Internet that provoked and fanned the flames of the uprising, prominent spokesmen in the ideological camp, such as Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Kayhan daily, the regime mouthpiece, blamed the government of President Hassan Rohani for the widespread Internet access (Iran has some 80 million residents and approximately 40 million smartphones) and for the lack of control over the Internet.[1]

At a January 3, 2018 press conference, IRGC commander Jafari explained: "The atmosphere of the Internet was not good at all, and some lost control of this atmosphere because of their interests, or because of negligence... The enemies rode quickly over the Internet, with 3,000 new forces, and reached the arena in order to create fitna [civil strife]... They began creating channels on the Internet... The lack of control over the Internet – which is run from outside Iran – and the negligence of those [in the government who are] responsible for control of this [online] atmosphere have exacerbated the rioting. But when we took control of the Internet, we witnessed a decrease in the creation of fitna."[2]

On January 4, 2018, Iranian Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said: "It is difficult to live without technology and social media, but these technologies must be directed. The Internet is considered to be a source of damage that destroys homes and creates many problems for families and young people, and, unfortunately, no effort is being made to direct it. If we do not think of a solution for the Internet, and for the foreigners' plots, a harsh future awaits us. We must block the active channels that aim to destroy society's morality, to denigrate the sacred values, and to destroy society's security."[3]

Iranian Prosecutor-General Montazeri (Source: Asr-e Iran, January 4, 2018) 

In its January 6, 2018 editorial, the regime mouthpiece Kayhan stated: "The neglect of the Internet and the transfer of the sphere of culture and public decorum to the hands of the enemies is perpetrating the cycle of damage and a threat to national security. Do some government officials think that if this foreign channel [a reference to the Amad News channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram that was blocked by the regime for allegedly encouraging protestors to make bombs] did not exceed what is allowed, and [only] not officially posted instructions for making a bomb and for attacking public places and the people's property, this would remove the many threats on the Internet, where there is no [lock on the] gate and whose planning takes place outside of the country? What about the training of a militia [that will act] against society? Why is Telegram CEO [Pavel Durov] ready to give up his 40 million users only to protect the terrorist and sabotage channel [Amad News], and did not agree to stop the activity of this channel, which gives instructions for making bombs and for attacking public property and places, and which creates unrest and a lack of security?

"Does anybody know why this Telegram channel that is inciting to bomb-making and to attacking official centers [of the regime], and is causing rioting, has continued to operate for the past two years [thanks to] a group of members within [the regime]; it appears to have supported some of the directors (also in the [presidential] elections). Would the [Rohani government's] Ministries of Communications and Intelligence explain this to the public? Why was it thought that the media of the enemy support the [Rohani] government, and why was no effort, not even the slightest, made [to act] against the cultural and political-security destruction that they [caused]? Why did the directors of the government not prioritize the vital issue of [establishing] a 'national information channel' until the enemy had managed to harm us in this way?

"The game of hide-and-seek being played by Telegram's CEO in these days in order to close – and none too soon – this terrorist [Amad News] channel (among hundreds of similar channels), and this channel's reopening under a similar name within a few minutes, proves, in fact, that the administration of the Internet must not be handed over to foreigners... After this last instructive experience, will the government think of a solution for a safe, transparent, and responsible national channel [i.e. Internet]?"[4]

In its next editorial, on January 7, Kayhan argued: "On the cultural front, which is an advance line for the media and the war against the [cultural] infiltration into hearts and minds, and also for the conquest of the gates of public opinion, we have acted in such a way that if we don't call it treason, I don't know what to call it. We have handed the reins of the system of life and public opinion in Iran over to the Internet. Anyone who, out of concern, has warned [about this] and presented a solution has been labelled an opponent of freedom and of free distribution of information. When the big data of society and of the nation are freely and easily handed over to foreigners, it is as if someone had handed over to a foreign element... the entire program of our front, including [every] detail,  large and small..."[5]

Passive Defense Organization Head Gholamreza Jalali: We Must Create And Support Iranian Messaging Apps

The head of Iran's Passive Defense Organization, Gholamreza Jalali, said, as reported by Tasnim on January 30, 2018: "In the matter of the recent protests and unrest in Iran, the causes of this incident formed a triangle. The first side of the triangle was the Internet; the second was the foundation of economic problems, and the third was the threats of the enemy, and all three must be examined.

"The most important side is the Internet and cyberspace. For various reasons, including negligence and failure to administer this area in Iran, the cyber network is important. This is because on this network, every official and everyone else goes there with their own point of view and approach, and therefore [each one's] policy and approach will be different, and this makes the network that we have uncontrollable. Telegram dominates 95% of the social networks in Iran...

"The director of this foreign channel [i.e. Telegram], Pavel Durov, is considered a disrupter of the peace in his own country...

"Telegram is a channel [i.e. platform] with smart administration, and therefore it has access to some 16 types of user information – such as contacts, work timetables, photos, location, and so on. All this information is stored on servers that are not in Iran. This information is analyzed, and big data are analyzed. With big data, they easily discover the details of the intelligence issues in society.

"Pavel [Durov] is the owner, and he does not demand payment from us for Telegram services. As a result, in order to profit, he sells this information to those who need it in order to analyze our country. Certainly, our information on Telegram has its own special clientele, such as the Americans, the Zionist regime, and Mojahedin-e Khalq – or any group that is capable of carrying out an operational measure against us. We saw an example of this on December 31, 2017 [when the popular uprising broke out across Iran]... 

"At the infrastructure of the [Telegram] social medium, a digital payment and economics channel was created, and this causes the collection and analysis of data about our labor and livelihood. Last week, Telegram presented its [own] cryptocurrency, Gram. This can impact the types of our jobs, to the point where we will be unable to cooperate with our own banks. This is reality, and [Iranian] labor's dependence on Telegram can create disruption and chaos...

"Telegram played a leading role in the recent unrest. On Telegram, the enemies planned a substantial black propaganda operation, such as [circulating] fake photos and video clips. Because of the lack of awareness among the public, they managed, to some extent, to ride on the public, but they were unsuccessful in advancing their aims. America and Saudi Arabia interfered. Trump's support for the protestors made the people quickly identify the elements in this stream, and to keep away from them.

"We took several steps to fight the wave of protests, including shutting down [i.e. blocking access to] Telegram. Some opposed this, because of their opinions, but after Telegram was shut down, [Iran's] cyber traffic dropped by 80%, and the security forces managed to arrest certain individuals at the right time and to find the heads of the [protesting] streams...

"In the recent unrest, they planned the cyber method that relies on the public, and this may happen again. Telegram planned a new order that was meant to replace [the old order], and [planned] to present a new model for media. Chances are that we will not manage to control this model, to the point where we will not be able to block [access to] it. This requires joint brainstorming with all the groups, the officials, and the people, so that we will create an appropriate infrastructure, and we will create a culture of using internal social networks.

"It is very important to remove Telegram from the communications infrastructure in Iran. When Telegram was down, the Iranian messaging [apps] came alive, and the number of members on them reached 10 million. These messaging [apps] must be supported."

Proposed Next Steps For The Regime

As soon as the protests broke out in late December, the regime immediately blocked access to popular social media such as Telegram and Instagram. On January 1, 2018, the ILNA news agency reported, citing an authorized source, that "the blocking of Instagram will be temporary, because in Iran it has no counterpart, and it is expected that within a few weeks the restrictions on it will be lifted, and it will be back to normal. Serious work is being done on smart filtering for this social network.

"The elements at Telegram have not cooperated with the Iranian elements, and the problem is the crossing of Iran's red lines by a foreign [company whose platform is] used for sending text messages, that has many Iranian users. It is expected that the Telegram app will be replaced by more suitable and safer Iranian versions, and that it will be blocked permanently and will become obsolete [in Iran]."[6]

Deputy Prosecutor-General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi said, on January 10: "The social network Instagram is ostensibly a network for conveying information, but in actuality it is an espionage network that cannot be controlled. It disseminates millions of [items of] criminal content against [Iranian] internal and external security, and also immoral content that is contrary to the sacred values of Islam. The information on millions of Iranians is stored on Instagram's servers in America, [where] it is kept and analyzed and the security services exploit it. The American espionage services control Instagram's administration. That is why Instagram is not cooperating in any way with Iranian elements in the matter of preventing crimes or of identifying the criminals [i.e. the protestors].

"The [regime's] various judicial institutions ordered the blocking of Instagram's criminal content long before the outbreak of the recent rioting and fitna. The prosecutor-general sent instructions for implementation to the Ministry of Communications, but they were not implemented prior to the fitna of 2017-18, for certain reasons that the ministry must explain.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi (Source: Asr-e Iran, January 10, 2018)

"Recently, Iran's security council ordered that Instagram be blocked, and implemented this, because of the explicit role it played in creating the rioting, the unrest, and the terror activities in various cities in Iran. But unfortunately the Communications Ministry disregarded the security issues, the large quantity of criminal content on Instagram, and the judicial orders regarding this Internet app, and removed the block.

"With the removal of the block on Instagram, Iranian young people and teens were again exposed to a large quantity of criminal content online. For this reason, those in charge in the Communications Ministry were cautioned by the Iranian prosecutor-general. They were told that the removal of the block on Instagram was carried out in contradiction of the principles of the law and the judiciary, and that those responsible needed to provide an answer in the matter."[7]

Regime officials also reiterated previous calls for Iran to develop its own social network, that would be on an Iran-based intranet controlled by the regime. In his January 5 Friday sermon, Assembly of Experts member and Tehran Friday preacher Ahmad Khatami called for creating such a social network:

"Everyone has seen that the Internet fanned the flames of the arena. This was the Internet that announced every moment where chaos was, and which slogan was being shouted. When they closed and restricted the Internet, the fitna died out. When [Supreme] Leader [Ali Khamenei] said that thousands of bombers were targeting Iran online, he meant that this bomber should be disrupted. Grand Ayatollah Makarem [Shirazi] said this week that instead of the reeking quagmire called Telegram, you should provide [Iranian] society with access to a healthy Internet, and [thus] preserve society's security, morality, faith, and health. Do not say 'we have disrupted [the Internet] temporarily.' If these Satans return, [this] situation will revert to the way it was. This is the truth and the reality that you saw.

""We believe that the Internet can lead to opportunities or to a crisis. As you have seen, in our country it has caused a crisis. What we are saying is that you will have the Internet, but that its server will be local. The server will be administered here. China brought Internet into the country and administers it by itself. Russia brought Internet into the country and administers it by itself. Why don’t you bring national Internet to the country – Intranet – as your leader has been saying for a long time? I know precisely that all the necessary means [for doing so] exist. Don't write and say that I am against the Internet. No! I agree with an Internet whose key is in the hands of the regime. The nation does not agree to an Internet whose key is in the hands of America..."

Addressing the Rohani government, he continued: "If you allow the enemy into your home, you will be humiliated. Dear people in charge, [Leader Khamenei] says that the Internet has become a place of murdering the religion and the morality of the young people. I induct you into [the effort] to save them – for you have seen that it created the fitna.

"I thank the dear young communications minister who administers this arena, particularly [for his] handling of the anti-revolutionary channel [Amad News] that very much fanned the flames of this rioting. I again say that if the gentlemen [in the Rohani government] again open the Internet, and again create rioting, they will have no answer for God and for the people."[8] 

To view this clip on MEMRI TV, click here or below:

On January 14, 2018, Iranian Supreme Council of Cyberspace member Reza Taghipour complained in an interview with Iranian TV that over the past five years the foreign-owned Telegram and Instagram had taken over Iran's cyberspace, and demanded that those in charge – that is, the Rohani government – apologize for this "serious strategic mistake." Taghipour ranted at the Rohani government's failure to develop an independent intranet controlled by the regime, which, he said, would have eliminated the need for the regime to appeal today to the "foreign, non-Muslim" Telegram CEO Durov to shut down the Amad News channel – to which Durov replied, I will look into it.

To view this clip on MEMRI TV, click here or below:

On January 17,  Iranian Supreme Council of Cyberspace secretary Abulhassan Firouzabadi said that access to Telegram had been restored at the order of President Rohani and with the knowledge of the Supreme National Security Council. He said that Iranian administration of the servers is not possible because devices operate on iOS or Android, and cloud services such as Amazon and Google are in the hands of the Americans. He added: "We must build infrastructure and enrich our digital services in order to solve these problems... We are allocating a lot of bandwidth to five apps for sending text messages, and they will receive a grant of up to 5 billion toman ($1.25 billion) and thus we will remove the monopoly of the foreign apps that are used for sending text messages. Within a year, for example, Telegram will no longer have a monopoly."[9]

Abulhassan Firouzabadi (Source: Asr-e Iran, January 17, 2018)

Another measure restricting the Iranian public contact with Western media and culture was a senior educational system official's January 6, 2018 announcement, to Iranian television, that English studies were from now on banned in government and non-government elementary schools.

* U. Kafash is a MEMRI Research Fellow; A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project.


[1] As will be recalled, in his 2013 presidential election campaign Rohani promised to remove the restrictions on the Internet. At the ceremony for the inauguration of his government, in August 2013, he said: "No one will be harmed if the atmosphere is open. We must not make the atmosphere of the university, the city, the state, the online media, and the Internet itself so very security-oriented. There is no need for the atmosphere to be so security-oriented; there is a need for a cultural-political coup." Tasnim, Iran, August 4, 2013.

[2] Tasnim (Iran), January 3, 2018.

[3] Asr-e Iran (Iran), January 4, 2018.

[4] Kayhan (Iran), January 6, 2018. 

[5] Kayhan (Iran), January 7, 2018. 

[6] ILNA (Iran), January 1, 2018.

[7] Asr-e Iran (Iran), January 10, 2018.

[8] IRNA (Iran), January 5, 2018.

[9] Asr-e Iran (Iran), January 17, 2018.

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