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Why is Iran shutting down the internet?

Iran is in turmoil. As mass protests sweep the Middle Eastern nation, the Islamic Republic government is suppressing internet access. In response, Western authorities are taking the unusual step of easing sanctions against the regime. What’s going on in Iran?

Why is Iran shutting down the internet?

What’s going on?

Civil unrest is spreading across Iran. Protests broke out after the death of a young woman in custody. Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was arrested on September 13 by the Tehran morality police, an organization that enforces a strict dress code on female citizens. Later that day she was taken to hospital, where she died on September 16.

Iranian officials are claiming she had a heart attack, but her family insists that she had no prior heart conditions. The prevailing consensus among many protesters and activists is that she was murdered while in custody.

In response, huge demonstrations are being held in Tehran and beyond. In a striking act of protest, many women have been publicly burning their hijabs, the article of clothing Amini was arrested for wearing incorrectly.

While Amini’s death was the catalyst for the current unrest, the growing protests seem to be expressing frustration over an increasingly wide range of cultural and economic issues, with many young people voicing their frustrations about Iran’s repressive policies.

How is the Iranian government responding?

Iran’s government is taking a hard line against the protests. As well as a heavy-handed response on the ground, with reports of police violence circulating, authorities have instituted internet shutdowns.

Social media apps like WhatsApp and Instagram are being blocked or partially restricted, with many internet users in Tehran reporting extremely limited internet access. Access to VPN services is also being negatively affected.

This is a fairly predictable response from the Iranian government. Authorities know that protests are often organized on social media and messaging apps. The more images and news stories are shared of the unrest, the more likely people are to join the movement.

Internet blackouts are also an effective way to prevent details of the protests and the brutal police crackdown from reaching the outside world. We’ve seen similar tactics used in other repressive regimes, from Kazakhstan to Myanmar.

How is the West responding?

Outside of Iran, Western nations and media have been following events closely. In response to the internet shutdowns, governments — including the US — have started lifting sanctions on some areas of the Iranian economy.

This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually an attempt to aid the Iranian protesters. The sanctions that are being eased are those that preclude internet and privacy-related companies outside of Iran from providing products and services there.

With the removal of sanctions, internet service systems like Elon Musk’s Starlink can be rolled out to improve connectivity, echoing interventions earlier this year in Ukraine when Starlink was used to support local connectivity. The intention is evidently to give people inside Iran the opportunity to communicate and organize protests and to keep outside observers informed of developments.

Does Iran have a history of internet suppression?

This is not the first time Iran has clamped down on internet freedoms. At the best of times, the Iranian internet is fairly restricted, but more intense internet blackouts were used in 2019 in response to another wave of street protests.

After soaring gas prices prompted thousands to take to the streets, Iran cut off internet access and engaged in a bloody crackdown, which resulted in multiple civilian deaths.

Understandably, there are concerns among human rights activists that the current online restrictions may be part of a similar strategy.

Check out our short YouTube video on this topic below.

What comes next?

The Iranian government is unlikely to ease its internet restrictions until the protests subside. While many activists inside and outside the country will be hoping to see a radical shakeup over the current governing system, that’s unlikely to happen.

Iran’s police are no strangers to violently suppressing protests, and as they showed in 2019, the government is willing to tolerate some collateral damage to maintain power.

The difference between now and 2019 is that the easing of Western sanctions could make a complete information blackout harder to maintain, and that might discourage authorities from responding with overwhelming force.

For now, the situation is still developing, but the world will be watching.