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Iran: Tehran Fails In Diminishing Unrest Through Expanded Control Of Internet

As ongoing protests in Iran were reaching the end of their second week, the regime’s parliament was quietly passing legislation to expand the filtering procedures for an already tightly-controlled domestic internet. If implemented, the new law will ban any foreign websites and social media networks that do not comply with the regime’s regulations or appoint an Iranian representative to verify that compliance. The law will also require those sites to register Iranian users and to provide regime authorities with data upon request.

A number of experts on cyberspace have reacted to the news by noting that Tehran’s scheme could result in the country’s civilian population being barred from all major international sources of information, including the Google search engine. If recent history is any guide, however, the same restrictions would be waived for regime officials and other well-connected individuals. Many of them, including the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, maintain an active presence on Twitter to this day, even though it has been formally banned since the time of the protests in 2009.

This double standard goes to show that the Iranian regime is intent on maintaining a one-sided relationship with information, or rather with propaganda. This goal is reflected also in the forced closure of independent newspapers and other media outlets, which occurs on a semi-regular basis as regime authorities attempt to channel public attention toward the omnipresent state media. Countless Iranians defy these efforts every day, using illegal satellite television hookups and virtual proxy networks to work around government restrictions. But that defiance only highlights the constant battle which prompts the regime to always seek out new and more elaborate ways of reinforcing control.

Of course, VPNs and pirate broadcasts are not the only examples of this defiance. Even some regime officials and state media outlets have been critical of the July 28 passage of the internet filtering bill, on the basis that it could result in a new surge of public unrest at a uniquely sensitive time. The protests that began two weeks before the parliamentary vote were motivated by water shortages in the province of Khuzestan, but within days they had inspired expressions of solidarity in other regions, as well as renewed calls for comprehensive social change and the ouster of the country’s ruling theocracy.

Those demonstrations underscored the contributions regime authorities had made to the water shortages through unregulated damming projects and overall poor resource management. It seems the natural outcome of that messaging was the emergence of straightforward slogans including “we do not want the Islamic Republic.” These are highly reminiscent of the defining slogans of two recent nationwide uprisings which took place in January 2018 and November 2019 and each constituted the greatest challenge to the ruling system up to that date.

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Supreme Leader Khamenei famously attributed the first of those uprisings to the organizing efforts of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), thereby undermining the propaganda Tehran had been spreading through its tightly-controlled media networks with regard to the leading pro-democracy opposition group. The regime had long maintained that the MEK was only a “grouplet” incapable of presenting a serious challenge to the regime, much less governing in its stead. That narrative evaporated at the beginning of 2018 and has never been revived.

Quite to the contrary, regime authorities have been incessantly warning about the potential resurgence of MEK-led unrest since the time of the first uprising, and the MEK itself has been working to realize that outcome. Toward that end, it has of course been using the internet and social media in its organizing events. But the MEK’s “Resistance Units” have also been holding public demonstrations of their own and posting images in public spaces to encourage more widespread activism. These strategies were instrumental in promoting a nationwide boycott of the June 18 sham presidential “election” which confirmed the well-known human rights abuser Ebrahim Raisi as the regime’s next president.

Less than 10 percent of eligible Iranian voters actually participated in that election, and even among those who did, many deliberately cast invalid ballots. Iranian state media attempted to diminish the boycott by muddying the statistics and by broadcasting staged scenes of a crowded polling place in Tehran. But the reality of the people’s growing power was nevertheless made known both through direct organizing and through defiant online communications. This no doubt helped to spur participation in the Khuzestan protests as well as a variety of surrounding protests, including some that began the very day after Raisi’s “election.”

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The regime no doubt intends for the new internet restrictions to slow the spread of this unrest, but considering that protests are still ongoing even after authorities cut off the internet altogether in various regions, it seems unlikely that the scheme will be at all successful. In fact, the regime’s desperate efforts to impede online organizing reflect a deadlocked situation in which no matter what steps it takes, protests [will] continue to spread and intensify.