Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.

Iran File: Hardliners eye greater control over the information space

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Newly empowered hardline politicians are setting new conditions to increase regime control over Iran’s domestic information space. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—took control of Parliament after interfering in Iran’s legislative elections in February.[1] This hardliner victory was part of a larger shift in Iran’s political institutions, beginning in the Judiciary in 2019, toward the far-right conservative camp. Hardliners have historically sought to restrict foreign internet and social media services and are using their growing influence toward this end. Their yearslong efforts along these lines have mostly failed in the past to overcome the opposition of the more moderate Rouhani administration and the parliamentary leadership of former speaker Ali Larijani. The election of hardliner Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf to replace Larijani after the principlist legislative victory may allow these efforts to move forward.

Hardline parliamentarians submitted legislation to deter use of foreign communications and networking services and centralize the regime’s social media oversight under a new body. Forty lawmakers submitted a *motion to the parliament speaker on August 24 to impose legal penalties against citizens offering unauthorized internet and social media services (such as virtual private networks). The motion also establishes an organizing board to issue licenses for and supervise social media in Iran. The board includes not only representatives from the Rouhani administration but also many hardliner-dominated institutions, including the Judiciary, Parliament, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Law Enforcement Forces. It is unclear whether the legislation will be put to a vote or pass, but the bill’s passage is more likely under the current parliament than the previous.

This legislation is part of a larger regime effort to replace foreign social media apps with indigenous alternatives. The Islamic Republic has gradually expanded its censorship of foreign social media in response to anti-regime unrest. The regime blocked Facebook and Twitter following the 2009 Green Movement and later *targeted Telegram after the 2017–18 Dey Protests. Hardliners have lately reignited debate over banning Instagram, which is not currently blocked, following the November 2019 gasoline riots.

Eight of the motion’s signatories are veteran parliamentarians who spearheaded impeachment efforts against prominent moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani in late 2018 and early 2019. This faction includes Abol Fazl Abu Torabi, Sodeyf Badri, Hossein Ali Hajji Deligani, Javad Karimi Ghodousi, Jabbar Koucheki Nejad, Nasser Mousavi, Hassan Nawrouzi, and Nasrallah Pezhman Far. These lawmakers—among other hardliners—seek to discredit and undermine the moderates and their agenda before Iran’s 2021 presidential election.

Principlists have also pushed to expand Iran’s national intranet to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services since November. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *criticized the Rouhani administration in August 2020 for making insufficient progress on developing the intranet. Passive Defense Organization Commander Gholam Reza Jalali previously *offered to oversee the formal government’s progress. The regime shut down the internet in Iran during the November 2019 crackdown, sparking international and domestic criticism and harming Iranian businesses. Iran’s rulers will block the internet again if massive protests emerge but want to minimize the resulting discontent and cost. A national intranet would allow the regime to monitor and censor communications without necessarily hindering most network functionality.

China may support the regime’s intranet development. Parliamentarian Mohammad Saleh Jokar, one signatory of the social media legislation, *claimed Chinese support is part of the 25-year strategic agreement that Iran and China are negotiating. Jokar added Iran’s main challenge to developing the intranet is its lack of server infrastructure.

Expanding regime control over cyberspace will enable more brutal crackdowns against dissidents and greater monitoring of Iran’s population possibly with less disruption of ordinary internet activity within Iran. The chance for future anti-regime and economic protests remains high, pushing the regime to adopt increasingly authoritarian measures. The regime is not only preparing its security forces but is also expanding its control over Iran’s internal information space in preparation for serious and sustained crackdowns against demonstrators.

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[1] Principlists generally oppose engagement with the West and support protectionist economic policies and significant state involvement in society. This faction includes many in the clergy and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who oppose President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government.

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