As registration gets under way for would-be candidates in the 2021 presidential election, the Clubhouse phenomenon has come to pose a new intelligence-security challenge for an ever-insecure Iranian regime.
In recent days, the video chat app has played host to a very public confrontation between Majid Soltani, newly-anointed CEO of Iran’s Telecommunication Company, and Minister of Communications Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi.
Both participants have links to Iran’s security institutions. Soltani holds the military rank of brigadier general and until 2014 served as deputy head of the Iranian police force’s information and communications branch. Azari Jahromi, meanwhile, was director-general of the Ministry of Intelligence’s comms security department until 2013.
The Rouhani administration sees Clubhouse as an effective new propaganda tool in the run-up to the election. On the other hand Iran’s unelected establishment, including the Revolutionary Guards, sees the US-made app as little more than a fresh security threat because of its potential role in facilitating role communication between activists and anti-regime Iranians, both inside and outside the country.
Unexpectedly, although both the Ministry of Intelligence and Intelligence of the IRGC have gone toe-to-toe in several recent security disputes, it has become apparent that both of these rival entities share concerns about Clubhouse.
The Role of "Upstream" Institutions
Since April 8, numerous Iranian reports surfaced stating that the country’s three main mobile network operators, the Telecommunications Company, Hamrah-e-Awal, and Irancell, have disrupted or attempted to cut off users’ connections to Clubhouse.
On April 11, the Ministry of Communications gave the three operators 24 hours to resolve the situation. When this did not happen, it filed a legal complaint. Seven days later, the Cabinet passed a resolution requiring the operators to fix the connection or else be fined up to 50 billion tomans (US$2.2million) every day from April 25.
After Irancell made a counter-complaint, Iran’s Court of Administrative Justice elected on May 2 to temporarily suspend the resolution until further review. In so doing, despite the clear course of action desired by the Ministry of Communications, the judiciary made its own position clear instead.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaeili said of the case on April 13: "Cyberspace needs to be managed and organized, and we and the Supreme Leader of the Revolution have repeatedly criticized the chaos in the cyberspace. This is the responsibility of the government and the Ministry of Communications, and if they fail to perform their duties, they must be held accountable."
On April 30, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi used a Clubhouse meeting to sharply criticize the telecoms companies’ “arbitrary” interference with the app. "The law of the jungle does not allow anyone to do whatever they want,” he said. “What caused the disruption on Clubhouse is against the law."
The Minister of Communications took this public stance at a moment when his name had come up in discussions about prospective presidential candidates. This was before the Guardian Council’s recent unilateral disqualification aged under 40 effectively knocked him out of the race.
Then on May 5, Majid Soltani, CEO of the Telecommunications Company, publicly denied his role in disrupting access to Clubhouse, saying he had "instructed a team to investigate the matter and find out what happened".
But he went on to make cryptic remarks about who might really be behind the apparent block: “Restrictions and closures of networks in the country follow a clear mechanism that everyone knows about. The mobile operators have no authority in these areas and are subject to upstream laws."
Then, in a jab at the Rouhani administration, he added: "It would be great if the government had the same sensitivity and speed of action in resolving issues related to the livelihoods of the people, like the chicken crisis and other similar ones.”
This public spat between the Ministry of Communications and the Telecommunications Company is a continuation of a much more long-standing rivalry. It is largely rooted in the fact that the two principal shareholders of the Telecommunications Company are huge parastatal holdings company the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive, which is controlled by the Supreme Leader, and the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation, while the elected government holds a much smaller share.
In 2018, after US sanctions tightened on the company, the IRGC claimed it had transferred its shares to the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive. But no details were released about the transfer, and most observers have not taken it seriously.
Even before the mass uptake of Clubhouse, these tensions had already boiled over on several occasions. On February 23 this year, Azari Jahromi accused Majid Soltani, without naming him directly, of serious mismanagement. Claiming to be addressing Soltani’s supporters, he said: "We know you have a lot of power and you can comment on everything, but we have a lot of power as well and we use whatever legal means we have."
Clubhouse is a Common Concern
Despite the public fallout between the government and rival institutions, the pressure on Clubhouse seems to be linked to concerns stemming from both Iranian intelligence agencies. Several officials and political figures have made comments to this effect in recent weeks.
In one of these allusions on May 4, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician, said bluntly on Clubhouse that the IRGC's own intelligence agency had pushed operators to filter the app. This came as little surprise to most of those present, particularly with the way IRGC-affiliated media agencies have depicted Clubhouse since it gained popularity in Iran.
The more surprising response came from Azari Jahromi himself in a Clubhouse interview on April 30. Asked by one participant, "Has a particular ministry requested the filtering of Clubhouse?", he said it was not true – but added that the Ministry of Intelligence, in a letter to his division and the National Cyberspace Center, had indeed warned of the “dangers” of this new phenomenon.
The Media War Over Clubhouse
Since the start of 2021, the constant presence of Iranian government officials and politicians on Clubhouse has made it plain that both “sides” see it as a potential political tool for themselves, even as it lays bare the tensions between them.
Other observers on both sides have noticed the same. In an interview with Tasnim News Agency, Mohammad Sadegh Afrasiabi, the conservative founder of Iran’s Media Literacy Association, said the app was "heating up the electoral environment," "introducing corrective options" and may end up "increasing public participation."
Abbas Abdi, the reformist president of the Tehran Journalists' Association, meanwhile told IRNA on April 18: "Clubhouse will increase participation, provided the participation is justified and the competitors are serious."
Many reformists see Clubhouse as a means of allowing the population some controlled access to them, of the type not offered by platforms such as Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. In a statement on April 13, government spokesman Ali Rabiei attributed the Clubhouse disruption to those who were "afraid of government officials talking to the people."
Just as much of interest to both factions, though, is keeping order. Media outlets close to the IRGC have criticized the Rouhani administration’s use of Clubhouse in the run-up to the election on the basis that it could be a security threat. On April 4, for instance, Tasnim News Agency likened it to Twitter, Facebook and Google and claimed it could be used for "identifying elites, identifying networks, stealing elite information on smart devices, widespread leaks of information in voice chats, inciting anti-security elements, and breaking taboos in direct dialogue with infected elements."
Mashreq News, which is close to the IRGC’s intelligence arm, also wrote on April 6: "Most government officials these days are constantly present on this application and sometimes enter into dialogue with counter-revolutionary and subversive elements." It added: “Bringing up challenging issues in discussions will certainly lead to their abuse by the counter-revolutionary factions."
In a similar vein, the ultraconservative Kayhan newspaper warned on April 6: "The new American Clubhouse application recently launched in Iran has attracted a large number of ministers and government officials. Parliament, the judiciary, the security services and the intelligence services need to be more serious than ever."
A number of activists and figures close to the IRGC have made similar panicked remarks about the app. Most of this focuses on the app’s role in facilitating communication between Iranians inside and outside the country, and between foreigners and Iranian officials.
In the short term, of course, it is unclear which will win out: security concerns or Clubhouse’s potential to improve turnout in June. But it seems unlikely that Iran’s powerful unelected institutions will tolerate Clubhouse activity in its current form once the vote is over.