On January 14, while concerned WhatsApp users around the world migrated to the encrypted messaging app Signal, following WhatsApp’s disastrous rollout of a new privacy update, Iran’s government swiftly enforced a countrywide ban on Signal. On the day of the announcement, the app was the most-downloaded from Iranian app stores.
Signal’s ban is not exactly atypical in a country where WhatsApp and Instagram — both owned by Facebook — are the only remaining open social media apps. Iranians have become accustomed to navigating the country’s increasing firewalls with VPNs and proxies.
But the latest Signal ban sparked political infighting between the sitting moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and an increasingly vocal conservative faction of the government. The heightened tensions come 15 months after Iran’s longest Internet shutdown, when access to social media was severely curtailed for over two weeks. And while contention between these two factions of government is not rare, it’s clear that internet freedom and social media have become vital issues for Iranian voters.
Shortly after the Signal ban went into effect, outrage against the announcement began to grow on Instagram and Twitter, where millions of Iranians often post with the help of VPNs. Using the hashtag #فیلترنت, which phonetically spells “filternet” in Farsi, users chastised the government for blocking the technology. Seizing on the opportunity, hard-liners within the government — a group of politicians openly campaigning against President Rouhani’s moderate regime — laid the blame on a young head of the Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications.
Azari Jahromi is rumored to be a candidate for the June presidential election (candidates have yet to be officially announced). At age 39, Jahromi is the only minister in Rouhani’s government born after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. In the last few years, he’s cultivated an image as a progressive, pragmatic figure, a younger version of Rouhani, who was initially hailed as a reformist when he came into power in 2013. Jahromi frequently takes to Instagram as well as Twitter, which is officially banned in the country, to communicate with the millions of Iranians who use social media.
As the head of the ministry that oversees the internet and social media, Jahromi has been tasked with carrying out Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promises of greater connection with the outside world. Despite the fact that Iran’s government has implemented numerous bans since Rouhani came into power, Jahromi often appears as the progressive defender of social media platforms.
A week before the ban on Signal, Iran’s conservative judicial arm indicted Jahromi for failing to implement orders for internet censorship. The charges specifically named his failure to ban Instagram, a platform that has become a major cultural and economic force in Iran — it provided an estimated 1 million jobs this year — but has become a contentious space for political speech.
Amir Rashidi, an Iranian internet and digital security researcher, told Rest of World that the Iranian government says it will block any foreign social media platform if it passes a certain bandwidth threshold. “They don’t want people to come together,” he said.
Iran’s judicial arm is led by Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative hard-liner who ran against Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections. Raisi has been pressuring the government to enforce more social media censorship, but the political cost of his mission is increasing. Although the judicial arm had just chastised Jahromi for his lack of censorship, the body issued a statement clarifying that it had nothing to do with the Signal ban. “The judiciary has not blocked any media, news, agencies and messaging during the transformation period and does not seek to block cyberspace and any of the social messengers,” stated a judiciary spokesperson.
President Rouhani was quick to defend his young minister, stating that the change was ordered by his office. “If you want to summon someone, that person is me not the young minister,” Rouhani tweeted on January 27.
After eight years under the moderate reformist Rouhani, many political commentators are predicting a conservative win in June’s election, which could bode badly for Iranians seeking a freer internet. But Signal’s official statement on the ban — “Iranian people deserve privacy. We haven’t given up.” — is a sign of hope for Iranians, according to the researcher Rashidi.
In the days since the ban, Signal has released a short-term workaround that will allow users in Iran to continue sending messages in and out of the country. “We believe everyone should have access to private communication tools,” Jun Harada, Head of Growth and Communications at Signal, told Rest of World. “So we will keep working to make sure Iran and countries like Iran have access to Signal.”
With the hawkish Trump administration out of office in the U.S., Rashidi said, “There is a hopefulness in the country regarding tech sanctions.” After years of being shunned by Western tech platforms — Apple and Google pulled Iranian apps from their stores in 2017 — Signal’s message of solidarity is a distinct change in tone for an American tech company toward its Iranian customers. “It’s definitely a good sign,” said Rashidi.