After Khamenei, Rouhani leaves Telegram amid looming shutdown of foreign apps

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Apr 20, 2018
After Khamenei, Rouhani leaves Telegram amid looming shutdown of foreign apps

The office of Hassan Rouhani today announced that the Iranian president has suspended his official account in Telegram, Iranian media reported. Rouhani’s decision came after Supreme Leader Ali Khameni’s office said yesterday that the Iranian leader would no longer use Telegram to “safeguard” Iran’s national security and “remove the monopoly of Telegram messenger”. Several government agencies and politicians also followed suit, urging their followers to use domestic messaging apps instead of Telegram and all other foreign apps. State-run and semiofficial media outlets also shut down their Telegram accounts today, indicating that the Iranian government is preparing to close down Telegram for the general public in the near future as well. Telegram is the most popular messaging app in Iran, used by half of the country’s 80 million population.

The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) said in a statement that the agency will only use Iran-based social media platforms and will close down its Telegram account. Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), also said it closes its Telegram account and published a list of domestic apps that its readers can use instead to connect with the outlet and receive news updates.

Comment: Facing growing internal and external pressure, Iranian authorities are placing increasing restrictions on Iranians’ use of international messaging and social media apps.

Rouhani and his team had made it clear that they opposed blocking Telegram. But since the order came from the Supreme Leader, the president caved in. Soon after the announcement on Telegram by Khamenei’s office yesterday, MohMohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, the minister of information and communications technology, said that the ministry had not received any instructions to start filtering Telegram. “The policy of filtering is not the solution by itself,” he added. But Fars today confirmed that the government has asked all state and nongovernmental organizations to stop using Telegram. Khamenei’s office also indicated that the government would soon shut down the service for ordinary Iranians as well.

The Iranian government ban on Telegram came after Russia said it had started blocking Telegram because the app company had refused Moscow’s request to share users’ data. Iran’s demand is similar: all foreign apps should keep their servers inside Iran or they will forfeit the right to operate in the country.

Following the December-January antigovernment protests, Iranian leaders feel more insecure and top security and judicial officials have consistently called for monitoring and filtering all foreign social media platforms in a stricter manner.

Authorities in Iran say Telegram and other foreign apps can operate in Iran only if they agree to station their servers inside the country – a request unacceptable to all major international social media and messaging companies.

While the Iranian state wants the people to switch to domestic messaging services, few Iranians will obey the call as they deeply distrust the government and fear that the deep state will spy on them and use their private messages against them. Another challenge for the Iranian regime is that domestic apps are too underdeveloped and poorly resourced to compete with foreign services. iPhone has also removed Iranian apps, including Soroush, from its App Store in order to not violate US sanctions. 

Iranian leaders are also worried that foreign powers can exploit popular anger inside Iran to foment unrest and weaken the regime. Last week, the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence department briefed the parliament about Telegram, claiming that the application poses national security threats to Iran because foreign adversaries are using it to spread propaganda against the Islamic Republic. “The cyberspace is at the service of America and the Zionist regime and people should be rescued from its grip.” Sayyed Hossein Naqvi Hosseini, the speaker of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee at the parliament, concurred. He called on the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology to expedite the creation of “national cyberspace networks” and support domestic applications. 

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