The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Next up on the Regime's Hit List: Instagram
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]
The Iranian Judiciary blocked Telegram this time last year. Iran may soon block another popular social media application: Instagram.
Forecast: The Iranian Judiciary may soon block the popular social media application Instagram. Regime officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have recently criticized social media networks for inciting anti-regime sentiments, moral and financial crimes, and violence in Iran. Instagram’s suspension of several accounts linked to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders and the recent killing of a cleric in Hamedan have renewed calls for greater social media restrictions in Iran. Recent events could serve as cover for the regime to preemptively ban Instagram in an effort to stymie protester coordination and foreign influence ahead of any future protests in Iran.
Regime officials have been pushing for Instagram’s ban over the past year. The Iranian Judiciary *blocked the popular messaging application Telegram on The original publication of this Iran File had incorrectly put the date for the Judiciary ban on Telegram as April 30, 2019. April 30, 2018. Regime officials since have signaled their intent to ban Instagram. First Deputy Prosecutor General of Iran Hojjat ol Eslam Mohammad Mosaddegh *told Fars News Agency that Instagram will be blocked on July 4, 2018. Mosaddegh cited concerns about Instagram celebrities taking advantage of innocent people to steal their money. However, Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi quickly *denied Mosaddegh’s claim. Deputy Iranian Prosecutor General for Cyberspace Affairs Javad Javid Nia *stated in early December 2018 that many religious scholars have been calling for blocking Instagram. Javid Nia followed up on January 2, 2019, claiming that Iran’s Judiciary had filed an injunction to block Instagram but had not ruled on the matter to allow Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council time to reach full consensus on the matter. Javid Nia noted that a majority of the Supreme Cyberspace Council agrees that blocking Instagram is necessary. Javid Nia also noted that the Iranian Judiciary can block Instagram on its own and will do so if the Supreme Cyberspace Council does not act soon.
Recent events, including the IRGC’s foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation and the killing of a cleric, have renewed Instagram as a regime target. The Trump administration designated the IRGC as an FTO on April 15. Instagram suspended the accounts of several IRGC commanders on April 16, including IRGC Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) Chief IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri. Instagram also suspended the accounts of non-IRGC regime officials, most notably Judiciary Chief Hojjat ol Eslam Ebrahim Raisi. Instagram, however, quickly *revoked the suspension of Raisi’s account. More recently, a man in Hamedan killed a cleric on April 27. The assailant, reportedly a former IRGC member, posted photos and videos of himself with his weapons following the assassination on his personal Instagram account. Local Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) later *killed the man. Supporters and those who reportedly knew the assailant also posted videos on Instagram discussing the man’s motives and expressing their support for his cause. Khamenei *spoke about the killing during a meeting with senior LEF commanders on April 29. Khamenei stated that he had himself seen four of the man’s photos on Instagram. Khamenei used the occasion to call for stricter gun controls and cyberspace restrictions. On the same day, Passive Defense Organization Commander IRGC Brig. Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali called for governmental control over social networks in times of crisis. Jalali *stated that “social media networks [during] times of crisis move the people against the government and places the executive system under pressure. . . . It must be controlled.”
Iran has developed a homegrown Instagram alternative and may use that as a platform to replace Instagram. Supreme Cyberspace Council Secretary Abolhassan Firouz Abadi *stated that “so far there is no directive for the blocking” of Instagram on April 24. Firouz Abadi, however, stressed the need to create a domestically made Instagram and will do so in the near future. Iran is already running an Iranian Instagram in an effort to replace the American original. The regime prepared several alternatives to Telegram before finally banning Telegram in spring 2018. Iranian-built alternatives to popular applications have been poorly received by the Iranian population and seen as a means by which the regime can spy on and monitor its citizens’ cyber activities. Google recently removed two alternatives to Telegram from Google Store on April 25 over concerns of regime espionage. Regime attempts to restrict people’s speech and internet freedoms will only add to their list of unresolved and worsening grievances.
The regime may ban Instagram preemptively in advance of future massive economic protests, which may require a more violent crackdown. The chance for future domestic unrest and economic protests are high and will increase over the coming weeks as U.S. economic pressure on Iran continues to mount. Regime fears over protest coordination via mobile applications and foreign influence on Iran’s protest scene could lead the regime to target Instagram soon. The regime previously *blocked Instagram, albeit temporarily, during the Dey Protests in late December 2017. Regime fears over the reignition of widespread protests throughout Iranian cities and towns will likely result in further regime action against factors that can enable a stronger, more organized protest movement. The regime also likely fears that it will have to take more brutal measures the next time widespread protests occur in Iran. The regime wouldn’t want such measures documented. A regime ban on Instagram may indicate that regime officials fear a renewed protest movement. It also may indicate that they expect they will have to use more violence to quell protests.