Iran’s judiciary has banned Telegram, the instant messaging app used by millions of Iranians, including by businesses, the media, politicians and the general public. The news was announced on Iranian state television on April 30.
But instead of being the end to the Revolutionary Guards’ long battle against Telegram, the ban most likely signals a turning point — and Iranians will use various contingency plans to ensure they still communicate and share news and information using Telegram channels, or through other means, such as accessing the channels’ linked accounts on Instagram and other apps.
In recent weeks, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Supreme Leader have stepped up their campaign against Telegram, which some reports say is used by 40 million Iranians. Authorities called for it to be blocked throughout April 2018, and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei closed down his Telegram channel on April 18, followed by announcements to do the same from the influential body the Guardian Council and Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Guards. There have also been renewed calls for the messaging app to be replaced with domestic alternatives.
So how did the Guards’ war against Telegram evolve, and what steps has it taken to stamp out what one ayatollah has referred to as a “putrid swamp”, and which others accuse of being home to “shadowy strategists,” operating as a platform for “immorality” and, recently a “pyramid scheme that is devouring the Iranian economy?”
The Battle Begins: Accusations of Infiltration, Spying and Obscenity
It was just over three years ago that the Telegram battle began in earnest.
On August 23, 2015, as Telegram began to build its popularity and Iranians rushed to install it on their devices, the newspaper Javan, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), published a warning. It claimed that the company had access to all information communicated through its app. “This is cause for worry because the information could be stolen — or, in other words, [people] could be spied upon.” The article also warned that the “enemy” can easily infiltrate Telegram channels.
Another warning followed on October 20, 2015. Gerdab Cyber Security Group — which worked for the Revolutionary Guards — warned: “A number of hostile [i.e. anti-Islamic Republic] sites have launched Telegram channels,” adding that it was part of “the enemy’s campaign of infiltration.”
But neither of these warnings made a dent in the public’s enthusiasm for Telegram and the overwhelming popularity of certain Telegram channels, including BBC Persian and Amad News, showed that nobody was heeding the Guards' warnings.
Then some authorities called for Telegram to be filtered on grounds of “obscenity.” First they objected to the availability of sexually explicit “stickers” on Telegram, followed by the excuse that some channels dealt with “sexual” content. But the reasons to block were not sufficient, and President Rouhani’s government postponed any decision by conveying the apologies that came from the administrators of the offending channels. “Our redline is obscene and immoral content,” said Mahmoud Vaezi, then Minister of Communications and Technology, on October 26, 2015. Ten days later, Telegram’s CEO Pavel Durov confirmed that “most obscene channels” had been blocked.
But the Revolutionary Guards’ redline was not really about obscenity.
“Criminal Content” and a “Zionist” Social Network
On November 11 of the same year, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, Secretary for the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC) — one of the most active proponents for filtering Telegram — offered a fuller definition of what that redline meant. “The problem is not only the publication of obscene content,” he said. “This network has channels that publish criminal content against national security, against what Islam holds sacred and against Iranian people’s culture and national identity.”
Their solution was simple, said Fars News Agency, another Guards affiliate, on the same day. “Social networks that are connected to enemy countries and foreign intelligence services must not be allowed to be active [in Iran] under any circumstances,” it declared. However, it said “foreign non-hostile social networks” should be able to get an operating permit provided “they follow Iranian laws to the letter, move their servers to Iran and get permission from appropriate authorities.”
At the time, Telegram was still considered a “foreign non-hostile social network,” so there was talk of asking Telegram to move its servers to Iran. But then on November 16, 2015, the newspaper Javan called Telegram “an anti-social Zionist network,” publishing an article that claimed the main investor in Telegram was a member of the “board of directors of the World Jewish Congress” and that its networks were engaged in spying and promoting prostitution in Iran “under the umbrella of the US National Security Agency (NSA).”
The Guards' stance had support from other quarters as well. “Channels have been started on Telegram that belong to the enemies of the regime,” said Mohammad Ali Asafnani, representative to the parliament and a member of CDICC, on November 17, 2015. “If a channel wants to work against a country’s regime, then no government can allow such an act against the national security of the country.”
On November 19, 2015, the Basij News Agency, operated by the Revolutionary Guards’ paramilitary Basij Organization, published that Telegram had been created by “Zionists of Russian descent” with the purpose of spying. The report rejected arguments in favor of using Telegram, stating: “You cannot drink clean water from a dirty mug.” Two weeks later, Ruhollah Momen-Nasab, the former secretary of the Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC) — a body created by Ayatollah Khamenei in 2012 to oversee the Islamic Republic internet policies — told Tasnim News Agency that the idea of “revolutionary and pious forces” joining social networks like Telegram was “stupid.” It concluded that anyone who did that would be “playing in the enemy’s field.”
The Elections, Stupid!
On December 30, 2015, the Basij News Agency claimed that 80 percent of Telegram users were Iranians — and demanded that the app be blocked. In the meantime, a new worry for the opponents of Telegram had emerged: The approaching parliamentary elections of 2016. Also on December 30, both Yalasarat Weekly and the newspaper Javan informed their readers that Telegram had become one of the main sources of information for the elections.
Those who objected to Telegram had good reasons to worry. A survey conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) prior to the parliamentary elections showed that 72 percent of those aged between 18 to 29 were signed up to at least one social network, meaning that the role and impact of social networks had increased with impressive speed.
At the same time as opponents of Telegram were trying to highlight the role the messaging app played in promoting immorality, they identified another target for their hostility. Soon came the impeachment of Mahmoud Vaezi, the Minister of Communications and Technology who, opponents said, was a staunch supporter of Telegram. Critics of the Rouhani administration claimed that the government supported Telegram because it wanted to use the app for its own political purposes.
But in contradiction to this theory, on February 27, 2016, Javan published an article that said that the election results were “very different” from what had been predicted on Telegram.“How wonderful that the Ministry of Communications did not agree to block Telegram on elections day, because otherwise the one-day shutdown of Telegram would have become fodder for playing victim and an excuse for why [the reformists] lost the elections,” the article said.
However, this relatively tolerant view toward Telegram and its role in elections did not last long. On March 5, 2016, the Basij News Agency published a statement by the so-called Islamic Revolutionary Front in Cyberspace that said “a close review of election results shows that in the cities where the campaigns were conducted with less reliance on Zionist networks [like Telegram]...the results were more favorable to national interests and the [principlists]”
At the same time, on March 8, 2016, the Students News Network, an affiliate of the Basij Organization, claimed that while voting was going on, “a vast propaganda campaign in support of the reformists took place” and it played a deciding role in “reformists getting the votes.”
Give us the Servers
Such pronouncements put more pressure on the Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC) and on the government to do something about Telegram. The suggested solution seemed simple: If social networks such as Telegram wanted to be used in Iran, their servers must be moved to Iran. Eventually, in June 2016, the SCC passed a directive that gave the social networks a one-year deadline to move their servers to the country.
But the deadline did not sit well with conservatives. On June 19, the Islamic Society of Students said the deadline would “buy time for buying Zionist software.” What they were really worried about, however, was the fact that Iran’s presidential election was scheduled for May 2017 — and they were afraid that the one-year deadline would benefit Hassan Rouhani, not their own side.
On June 14, 2016 Javan claimed Telegram had “extensive plans to influence the 2017 presidential election...this network can work outside the supervision of the government and it can change election results,” it argued.
Three months later, when it became clear that the servers are not going to be moved to Iran and “intelligent filtering” was not technically possible because of encryption, pressures to ban Telegram started up again. This time, the anti-Telegram campaign deployed heavy-weight religious authorities, led by Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, an extreme conservative who also happens to be a Holocaust denier even though his ancestors were Jewish. At a meeting with the Communications Minister Vaezi in August 2015, Shirazi told him that the current cyberspace situation made him “weep” and that Telegram could trigger events similar to the “2009 Sedition” — a reference to the violent aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.
High-Speed Internet is “Immoral”
Further intervention from Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi was anticipated. In 2014, he had issued a fatwa declaring that high-speed and mobile internet were both immoral and contravened Islamic laws.
Rouhani’s government tried to counter the new wave of attacks by offering a number of solutions — from speeding up the “national internet” and forming a working group to overseeing the creation of “appropriate content” to identifying administrators for Telegram channels that had high numbers of subscribers. The government also implicitly supported the judiciary’s threat that it would treat any official use of Telegram as a criminal matter.
But these proposed solutions failed to appease the opponents of Telegram. On December 6, 2016, the newspaper Javan dismissed the measures as “the government’s new game” and claimed that Telegram channels were set up to polarize the country by attacking the foundations of the regime while supporting Rouhani’s government. A week later, Ezzatolah Zarghami, the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) — who is accountable only to the Supreme Leader — ironically used his own Telegram channel to repeat Javan’s claims.
As the 2017 presidential election neared and tensions between the different factions escalated, a number of corruption scandals mesmerized the public — including revelations about the “astronomical” salaries of some government officials and the shady land deals of Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and the City Council, and about the personal bank accounts of Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani. The key role Telegram played in disseminating news and information about the scandals made its opponents more determined to shut it down.
On January 10, 2017, a Javan article claimed that “shadowy strategists” had targeted the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary, and pointed to Amad News as a “symbol” of these attacks. On January 28, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, Secretary of the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content, said that he had repeatedly asked that Amad News be filtered but that “the Communications Ministry is unable to implement the orders.” In January, media outlets associated with the Revolutionary Guards, in particular Fars News Agency, the Mashregh News website and Tasnim News Agency, stepped up their attacks on Amad News — which in practical terms only meant that Amad News attracted a bigger audience.
Less focused on establishing connections between Telegram and the US and the UK, critics emphasized there was a firm link between Telegram and Israel. On February 7, 2017, Pars News claimed that Israeli officials and Telegram had arrived at an “agreement” on how to influence the presidential election — hinting that this arrangement would be for the benefit of the Rouhani campaign.
Threats from the judiciary also reached a new high. Iran’s Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri warned: “We have cyberspace under surveillance.” And CDICC reported that it was drawing up a directive for how people used the Telegram app. A sense of urgency was triggered by the astonishing eruption in the number Telegram users and channels. According to unofficial statistics, the number of Telegram channels with more than 5,000 subscribers had risen to 11,000. The total number of active Telegram channels operating in Iran was reported to be more than 170,000, of which 32 had more than 500,000 subscribers or members. Just 10 months later, in early 2018, the number of Telegram channels in Iran climbed to 761,000, of which around 260,000 were regularly updated.
A New Challenge to Control — and to Profits
And then, on April 13, 2017, a new twist in the Telegram story unfolded, agitating its opponents even further. The app introduced its voice service to Iran. Five days later, on April 17, Iranians reported that the service had been disabled. Prosecutor General Montazeri claimed there were “security problems” with Telegram’s voice service, but Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported the true story: By using the service, people would save a considerable amount of money. So, in addition to conservative politicians and media, Telegram had new enemies: its competitors in the communications business, who were liable to lose money when Telegram launched its voice service. As it happened, the Revolutionary Guards Corps was a shareholder in this competitive market too.
The voice service was blocked, and yet Telegram still played a key role in the presidential and municipal elections. The government’s spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht announced that, in the “atmosphere of elections” there were “problems” using traditional media. “Instead, we had to use cyberspace and we were able to disseminate information very well,” he said. The same day, Javan had the following assessment: “Now, more than ever, we can understand the importance of cyberspace and social networks, which proved their power in shaping presidential and local council elections.”
This comment hit at the heart of the quarrel over social networks and Telegram. For years, the Revolutionary Guards and the Guardian Council had acted as guardians overseeing elections, and now they could not tolerate a rival.
8,000 “Criminal” Channels
After the elections, the wrangling over Telegram raged on at the highest levels of Iran's establishment. In summer 2017, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, who is deputy to Iran’s Prosecutor General as well as having a role at the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content, said: “More than 40 times we have sent a list of 8,000 Telegram channels to the Ministry of Communications to be filtered and they have done nothing.” Communications Minister Vaezi dismissed his claim, accusing Khoramabadi of repeatedly giving his personal opinion about Telegram despite lacking “any expertise in this field.”
Nevertheless, on July 16, 2017, Vaezi claimed that each week his ministry blocked 3,000 “immoral” channels. But soon after authorities began listing the targets of their campaign — Amad News, Vahid Online, and so on — it became clear that stomping out “immorality” was not really at the heart of the judiciary and Revolutionary Guards’ battle against Telegram (as "obscenity" had never been at the heart of the battle either). They wanted to block access to information, or at least some brands of it.
As the quarrel intensified, Prosecutor General Montazeri chimed in and said that the pronouncements by his deputy were not his personal opinion — they were orders straight from the judiciary or by directives set out by the filtering working group. During this period, the Cyber Police also supported the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary by issuing daily reports about the increase in cybercrimes. In August 2017, it announced that 48 percent of cybercrimes took place on Telegram.
A “Terrorist” Platform
On September 26, 2017, Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolawtabadi announced that his office had brought charges against the management of Telegram for “providing services to terrorist groups including ISIS and facilitating crimes such as child pornography, human trafficking and drug trafficking.”
By tying Telegram’s name to ISIS, Dolawtabadi exploited the two terror attacks in Tehran, including one on the parliament, on June 7, 2017, which left 12 people dead and 42 injured. Iranian officials claimed that the ISIS terrorist team coordinated their actions entirely on Telegram, and that since Telegram is encrypted and cannot be surveilled, intelligence agencies were not able to identify the attacks before they were carried out.
Then came the December-January 2018 protests. After mass protests on December 30, 2017, Rouhani’s government was forced to relent. The next day, it filtered Telegram altogether. According to a survey by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), 58 percent of protesters said that they had used Telegram and 63 percent of this group said that they were using filter-breakers to continue using it. Authorities unblocked Telegram on January 13, 2018.
A group called Restart used its Telegram channel to incite violence and to publish photographs and videos of people setting fire to government buildings, prompting officials to suggest new links between terrorism and Telegram. Furthermore, Amad News published information about how to use explosives on its Telegram channel. This led to the blocking of the channel by Telegram itself.
Prior to the protests and the blocking of Amad, the blocking of other channels also received considerable media attention, as well as signaling a victory for anti-Telegram camps. One of the blocked channels had published information about Saeed Tousi, the Koran teacher who was accused of child molestation, and the other reported on espionage charges brought against the daughter of the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani.
But in the end, the Amad block was less of a victory than it had initially appeared. Soon after, a replacement channel for Amad News was launched and the Amad audience flocked to subscribe to it. This time Telegram refused to block the new channel.
Drain the “Putrid Swamp”
A new wave of attacks on Telegram started on January 1, 2018, when Yadollah Javani, the Revolutionary Guards’ deputy for political affairs, announced that Telegram was an important tool for communication between the “enemy” outside Iran and “elements” within the country. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi said that the “fire of the internet” was burning everybody and described Telegram as a “putrid swamp.” Ahmad Khatami, a senior member of the Assembly of Experts and Tehran’s Acting Friday Prayers Leader, announced that the “evil of Telegram” must not return.
Mohsen Rezaei, the Secretary of Expediency Council, came up with his own outlandish conspiracy. He claimed that during a meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan, the CIA, Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law, Saudi Arabia, and others had started an operation to overthrow the Islamic Republic using the internet. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the hardliner Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, said that cyberspace had become “a plague on our lives” and the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani compared social networks to an “armed robber,” and demanded to know why Telegram should be able to monopolize 40 percent of Iran’s Internet bandwidth.
Media outlets associated with the Revolutionary Guards published reports that businesses would not be hurt if Telegram was filtered and wanted to know why the government officials who had ignored previous warnings had not been punished. And 170 members of the parliament wrote letters to the heads of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the government and demanded that Telegram be replaced by domestic apps.
Conduit for Money Laundering
Despite this new wave of attacks and threats, on January 13, 2018, authorities removed the block on Telegram. This led to fresh accusations from the Revolutionary Guards’ media outlets. They claimed Telegram was being used as a safe conduit for money laundering and currency smuggling. General Gholam Reza Jalali, head of the Civil Defense Organization, said that Telegram sells the information that it gathers in Iran to Israel and the United States. He accused Telegram of wanting to “overthrow” the Islamic Republic and said that Telegram’s virtual currency would result in billions of dollars leaving Iran.
Warnings of economic disaster were new tactics for the campaign against Telegram. General Jalali invited religious authorities to issue fatwas on the matter. Abolhasan Firoozabadi, secretary of the Supreme Cyberspace Council, entered the fray and gave numerous interviews about the financial harm Telegram was inflicting on the Iranian economy. On April 3, 2018, he warned: “Telegram is a pyramid scheme that is devouring the Iranian economy” and said it could potentially take 50 billion dollars’ worth of currency out of Iran.
No hard numbers or facts were offered for these accusations, yet it has become a popular new refrain among those who oppose Telegram.
Emboldened by these new provocative accusations in addition to the ammunition it had previously, gathered, the anti-Telegram campaign stepped up its efforts. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the parliament’s Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, told reporters that Telegram would be filtered and that the order would come from the “highest level” of the regime. And on April 10, officials of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit met with members of the parliament to convince them of their position.
When Boroujerdi used the words “highest level” nobody had much doubt that he was talking about the Supreme Leader. Although Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the parliament from Tehran, said it was unlikely that the Supreme Leader would interfere with executive affairs, on January 25, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had met with “cyberspace experts,” with a view to taking some sort of action.
Khamenei Drops Telegram
He was right. On April 18, Ayatollah Khamenei discontinued his own Telegram channel, which had close to one million followers — a move that reiterated the Supreme Leader’s support for banning Telegram and his belief that the app should be replaced with domestic alternatives. It followed Telegram Russia's attempt to ban Telegram on April 13.
Almost immediately, others followed Khamenei’s example. Fars News Agency, an affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards, issued a similar statement, saying that “to support domestic messengers and end the monopoly of cyberspace by non-Iranian messengers, Fars News Agency will soon continue the activities of its news channel only on domestic messengers.” And the public relations office of the Guardian Council also announced that “to safeguard national security and support domestic products, this council has ceased activities on Telegram.”
So the groundwork for banning Telegram had been laid, and there had even been earlier unofficial reports that Khamenei was against the idea of unblocking the app on January 13. He had also expressed his satisfaction that the Iranian public was increasingly using domestic messaging apps.
But the fact was that there was no public rush toward these alternatives. No other app — domestic or otherwise — commands the popularity or trust that Telegram enjoys. Mahmoud Sadeghi, quoting the secretary of the Supreme Cyberspace Council, reported that “during the few days that Telegram was blocked, more than 30 million people used filter-breakers” to access the app.
So did the Supreme Leader have access to a different confidential report, or did he simply choose to interpret the council’s report differently?
The government, and especially President Rouhani, still do not want to ban Telegram. However, they have changed tactics, arguing that the best solution was to end the Telegram’s “monopoly.” The idea was that, with the government’s financial support and encouragement, domestic messaging apps would have been able to compete with Telegram and that the consumer would be able to make their own choices.
The Free Market Will Never Do
But the Revolutionary Guards and others wishing to stamp out Telegram will not be persuaded by the government’s vision of a free market breaking down Telegram’s monopoly. They are aware that no other app has anywhere near the clientele that Telegram has. On September 12, 2015, the Ministry of Communications reported that 13 million Iranians were using Telegram. This number now exceeds 40 million and the Revolutionary Guards and other opponents of Telegram know very well that they would likely be the losers if the decision was left to the market.
But the ban on Telegram is not the end of the story — it’s probably most likely to be the beginning of a new chapter. On April 14, the newspaper Javan described Telegram as the “most destructive social network,” but it also warned that filtering it would simply prompt people to migrate en masse to Instagram — and that the existing Telegram channels had already posted addresses of their Instagram pages “just in case” Telegram became unavailable.
More on the impact of Telegram on Iranian society and politics:
Clashes Make Telegram a Hot Topic — Again, February 2018
Alternatives to Telegram or a Security Trap?, February 2018
A Messaging App That Can Change Iran, May 2017
Judiciary Blocks Telegram Voice Calls, April 2017