Eight Iranian Officials Call For Lifting Ban on Twitter Less Than a Month After State Blocks Telegram
Conservatives Increasingly Endorsing Twitter as Propaganda Front
Six Iranian ministers and two members of Parliament (MPs) have sent a letter to President Hassan Rouhani calling on him to lift the state’s ban on Twitter. The call comes on the heels of the judiciary’s decision to ban the widely used Telegram messaging app on April 30, 2018.
The letter has not been published but on May 21, 2018, the Rouhani government’s public relations website described it with the following passage.
“While pointing to logical and documented reasons to unblock Twitter, the letter noted that the space provided by this network is suitable for the impactful presence of the country’s media activists and youths who would be able to have a much stronger impact on the world community through this international medium.”
The eight high-level politicians who signed the letter are all members of the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (WDICC), Iran’s principle body charged with making content filtering decisions.
The day after news of the letter became public, Iran’s hardline Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri announced his opposition.
Talking to reporters on May 22, Montazeri said, “Twitter was filtered [banned] by a judicial order and therefore it cannot be discussed in the WDICC and as a result we will not take it into consideration.”
“The judicial order will remain firmly in place as long the conditions in Twitter are the same as in the past,” he added without elaborating.
The letter was signed by Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Education Minister Mohammad Bathaei, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, Justice Minister Alireza Avaie, Science Minister Mansour Gholami, Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Abbas Salehi, and MPs Ramezanali Sobhanifar and Mohammad Kazemi.
The intelligence minister’s decision to support the call marks a rare public acknowledgement by a high-ranking Iranian security official that Twitter is not a national security threat.
Since Jahromi was approved by Parliament as the country’s telecommunications minister in the summer of 2017, he has also repeatedly discussed unblocking Twitter.
“We have made efforts to follow up on this matter…The unblocking of these services [Twitter] would require full coordination between state agencies. I hope there will be a conclusion to this issue in the Supreme National Security Council as soon as possible,” said Jahromi in August 2017.
Jahromi issued his most recent statement of support on May 20, 2018, when he said removing the ban on Twitter would “require full coordination between state agencies.”
But in March 2018, Assistant Prosecutor General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, also a member of the WDICC, said, “YouTube and Twitter will not be unblocked. In fact, their filtering has been an unprecedented opportunity to stop the penetration of the enemy in cyberspace.”
Other politicians have pointed to the futility of banning Twitter when state officials continue to use it.
“The active accounts of state officials on the filtered Twitter network indicates the defeat of the filtering policy,” tweeted MP Mahmoud Sadeghi on March 31, 2018, while tagging Khamenei and other officials in his tweet.
Iran banned Twitter in 2009 after it became a source of news about the state’s violent repression of widespread protests against the results of the country’s disputed presidential election that year.
If the politicians’ call were put to a vote by the WDICC, a majority of its 12 members would back the move, but the prosecutor general’s response indicates that the decision no longer lies with the WDICC, and even if it did, the judiciary would not allow the ban to be lifted.
The WDICC is the principal body charged with banning online content in Iran. This group reports directly to the judiciary, whose head is under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s authority. The judiciary also has the power to shut down websites or applications, order the deletion of content, and order filtering, as does the country’s cyber police.
The fact that an assistant prosecutor was able to call for Iranian internet service providers (ISPs) and the state-run Telecommunications Infrastructure Company to block access to the app in the country
without the WDICC’s input has challenged and discredited the WDICC’s legal authority.
It is not clear whether the WDICC will hold a session to discuss Twitter in its next meeting. The news that the Rouhani government supports unblocking Twitter while simultaneously refusing to call on the judiciary to rescind its ban on Telegram has meanwhile resulted in Iranian social media users questioning the contradiction.
Iranians React on Social Media
Iranian journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabai tweeted on May 21, “It doesn’t make a difference if Twitter is filtered or not because now that Telegram has been filtered, online censorship circumvention tools are here to keep it open, as they have kept Facebook and many news sites open. Un-filtering Twitter would be a good thing but when circumvention tools are accessible 24 hours a day, it won’t make a lot of difference if the filter is removed.”
Another Iranian Twitter user calling himself “aryxgraphy,” said: “What good would it do for the country to unblock Twitter? You filtered Telegram and destroyed thousands of jobs and now what do you want to achieve with opening up Twitter? How many people depend on Twitter for their livelihood? I swear to God I can’t understand your actions at all. By the way the political climate on Twitter is a thousand times more intense than Telegram!”
Thousands of Iranians used Telegram, which operates as a personal messaging app and which has channels, similar to Facebook pages, to advertise their businesses products and services.
During a meeting with senior officials at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance in January 2018, President Rouhani stated that “more than 100,000 jobs had been lost in the past week” as a result of the temporary ban on Telegram that month.
PhD student Morteza Amini tweeted that calling for Twitter to be unblocked while Telegram remains banned is hypocritical: “What do these eight dear officials think about Telegram? It has been nine years since Twitter was filtered and now these eight individuals say they do not support it. Can those who imposed the filter tell us why they did and kept it going for nine years? If their response is unsatisfactory, can we easily forgive them?”
Conservatives Want to Increase Presence on Social Media Networks
A growing number of conservative officials and pundits have also called for Twitter to be officially unblocked in Iran to defend and propagate support for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On April 16, 2018, Vahid Yaminpour, an ultra-conservative journalist in Iran known for producing programs on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) organization that cover up or defend human rights abuses in Iran tweeted: “When one of the newspapers published a photo of my Twitter account and asked why I was on this network, my account was empty. But now I am certain that my presence here will be impactful.”
“Going to war against the enemy on his own ground will be difficult but more logical,” he wrote. “If we don’t fight them on Twitter, we will be limited to confronting them in our domestic media.”
Despite the ban on Twitter, Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei started using it in 2009 and maintains accounts on it in several languages, as do many other Iranian officials from across the country’s political spectrum.
In March 2018, three news agencies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—Tasnim, Fars and Mashregh—published articles and interviews discussing the benefits of Twitter and having “revolutionary forces” on the social network.
Mojtaba Zolnour, a conservative lawmaker from Qom and a member of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security Affairs, said in an interview on April 13, 2018, “I will do whatever I can to remove the filter on Twitter” adding that he wouldn’t use it until it was unblocked.
A survey of statements by conservative officials and pundits in Iran who support unblocking Twitter in Iran boil down to the following reasons:
– Conservatives should engage on Twitter to prevent liberals from maintaining a monopoly.
— Twitter can be used to propagate the principles of Iran’s 1979 revolution.
— Twitter can be used to detect and prevent enemy plots.
One of the first public requests to unblock Twitter from the conservative side came in August 2016 from the Tabnak website, which is affiliated with former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei.
In an unsigned article the website argued that being absent on Twitter prevents the Islamic Republic from responding to Saudi Arabia’s propaganda against Iran.
“Given the current circumstances, with Saudi Arabia becoming active on Twitter and launching psychological warfare against Iran and creating anti-Iranian trends, it is time for the decision-making bodies to look into the idea of unblocking twitter,” said the article.
Recent articles and interviews by conservative media avoid mentioning specific countries but do frequently refer to propaganda warfare and the need to confront the Islamic Republic’s “enemies.”
Asked about the reason for his presence on Twitter, Mehdi Mohammadi, a well-known conservative and former political editor of the hardline Kayhan newspaper said on March 28, 2018: “Presently, Twitter is the most important stage for creating media trends.”
“The main issue is that revolutionary forces should have a presence in Twitter’s creative and organized space and take advantage of chances to turn threats into opportunities and never shy away from spreading revolutionary Islamic positions and ideas throughout the world,” he added.
He continued: “When there’s a fateful and detrimental war going on somewhere that could have an adverse effect on you, there’s no virtue in sitting on the sidelines. The right thing to do is to step into the enemy’s territory and learn how to engage in war.”
In November 2009, Supreme Leader Khamenei described social media as a front in foreign powers’ soft war on Iran.
“The colonial powers who tasted defeat in confronting our strong Islamic state in the first decade of the revolution [1979-1989] are now giving priority to conducting a soft war against us.”
“The objective of the enemy’s soft war against us is to use sophisticated cultural and communication tools to spread rumors and lies and create doubt, pessimism and division among the people,” he added.
Aref Nasr commented on the conservative Saheb News site on March 29, 2018: “Revolutionary forces are now entering the stage that was created to have an impact on people around the world and they are reshaping the social media into a new battleground that used to be filled with adversaries and anti-revolutionaries.”
“The same arguments for being present in Syria and Iraq apply to Twitter. Just because this social network runs on servers based in the West does not justify our absence from this war front. We cannot leave the space open for anti-revolutionaries to roam uncontested,” he added.