Situation Report Threat Update

authors

Mike Saidi

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Threat Update Situation Report

Authors

Mike Saidi

Latest Edition

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The imminent nationwide ban on the popular messaging application Telegram may serve as the next flashpoint in Iran’s turbulent protest scene.
Iranian regime officials prepare to ban Telegram

By Mike Saidi

[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 imminent nationwide ban on the popular messaging application Telegram may serve as the next flashpoint in Iran’s turbulent protest scene. Approximately *40 million Iranians actively use Telegram today, including more than 80 percent of Iranians ages 18 to 29. Iranians use the application to communicate with friends and family and to share jokes and videos. Protesters also made wide use of Telegram during the late December 2017 protests to share videos of protests and to document regime injustices. A regime-directed, permanent ban on Telegram, and possible action against other popular foreign applications such as Instagram and WhatsApp, may fuel popular resentment and could make a resumption of widespread anti-regime protests more likely. 

Regime officials have already set the stage for a general ban on Telegram, with some *reports indicating that a nationwide block could come as early as late April. The Ministry of Education issued a *directive on April 15 prohibiting school staff and faculty from using platforms such as Telegram, Instagram, and WhatsApp to share information with students and instead use domestic messengers. Prominent reformist figure and First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri followed up on the Education Ministry’s directive with his own *injunction on April 18. The injunction expanded on the Education Ministry’s move and ordered all government agencies to use domestic messengers for cyber communications and activities and cease all activities on foreign messaging applications within a week. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have since shut down their Telegram accounts.

Popular accounts, including that of state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), have announced the resumption of their cyber activities on Iranian-made domestic alternatives such as Soroush and *iGap in lieu of Telegram. Soroush and iGap are two of seven regime-approved Iranian-borne messengers touted as suitable *alternatives to Telegram.

The regime’s move to nix Telegram – part of the regime's efforts to exert greater control and oversight over people’s private communications – likely results in part from the continuation of low-level protests throughout Iran after the nationwide protest movement subsided in January.

  • Thousands have gathered since April 18 in the southern city of Kazeroun in Fars Province to protest their attempts to divide their county
  • Citizens of Saman, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province assembled to protest the diversion of water from their town to surrounding villages
  • Iranian Arabs throughout Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran took to the streets to protest the regime’s discrimination against Iranian Arabs, an ethnic minority group in Iran

Recent protests have been more localized and pale in comparison to the pervasiveness of the anti-regime protests in late December 2017-early January 2018. More importantly, the fact that protests, even violent ones, have become commonplace in Iran denotes a looming and an ever-growing security threat for regime officials.

The regime has already mobilized in the immediate aftermath of the protests in late December to prevent the likelihood and strength of new protests. Iranian authorities temporarily *blocked Telegram during the late December 2017 anti-regime protests over fears that protesters were using the application to organize and coordinate ahead of nightly protests. Iranian Parliament moved to double the police forces’ budget for the current Persian Calendar year from last year’s final authorized budgetary allowance. The increase in the police force’s budget also included a 400 percent increase for purchasing “weapons and equipment, and strengthening of enforcement stamina.”

Regime fears over the reignition of mass 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. Regime officials are already eyeing Telegram. The wholesale implementation of a “*national internet” might be next.  

Additional takeaways for the week:
  1. Al Houthi movement hardliners are consolidating power, decreasing the likelihood that there will be a resumption of UN-led political negotiations. A Saudi-led coalition airstrike killed the head of the al Houthis’ Supreme Political Council in al Hudaydah on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Al Houthi defense officials appointed a successor who is reportedly closer to more hardline senior al Houthi leaders.
  2. Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in the Sahel region of West Africa are growing increasingly lethal and expanding their areas of operations. Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali conducted an attack on a military base using multiple vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices for the first time. An ISIS-linked group adapted to counterterrorism efforts in eastern Mali by shifting its operations to northern Burkina Faso.