The Facebook-owned app, along with WhatsApp, is one of the few Western social media apps to not be outright blocked in Iran, with Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube only accessible via VPNs. The great irony is that while Iran’s Supreme Leader can goad Donald Trump on one of his 12 Twitter accounts, or its president can just kick back and watch the World Cup, normal Iranians can’t officially tweet.
But now Iranians using Instagram are getting sucked into a power battle between opposing hardliner and moderate factions within Iran, ahead of presidential elections due to take place in June.
Hassan Rouhani, who in Iran is considered a moderate, is reaching the end of his two-term presidential limit. During his eight years in power, Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal with Western powers, was stung by punishing economic sanctions by the Trump administration, and suffered greatly during the pandemic. The so-called moderates – who lost control of Iran’s lower house in pandemic-hit elections last year – need a successor to Rouhani if they are to retain control of the executive branch.
Two-term limits, regular elections that moderates are agonising over, a tumultuous legislature: Iran almost sounds like the US system of democracy, but since 1979 the country has been ruled as an Islamic theocracy. The president serves as the international-facing leader, while the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the head of state. Khamenei has the ultimate say over every single aspect of policy in the country, backed by a judiciary of hardline conservative clergymen that enforce Iran’s version of Sharia.
With the support of the judiciary, the hardliners have already made a move against Iran’s telecoms minister, the youthful and eager Azari Jahromi. At 38, he is the first ever cabinet member of the Iranian government born after the Islamic Revolution, and in prime position to appeal to the country’s youth and become the future of the moderate faction. Jahromi has tried to brand himself as the champion of the internet via glossy PR campaigns and starting 5G trials in Iran.
Last month, the judiciary summoned Jahromi for prosecution, citing his refusal to block Instagram, or impose bandwidth restrictions on other foreign social media and messaging apps – a clear warning amid reports he could run for president. Rouhani has backed his cabinet minister, saying that while he supported “control” over content, total “closure” was not the right approach.
Of the 59 million internet users in Iran, almost half use social media in their everyday life, so any further blocks on social media are going to affect a lot of people. Kaveh Azarhoosh, an Iranian internet policy researcher based in London, said that while the tussle over Instagram seemed dramatic, in fact there wasn’t much daylight between the hardliners and the moderates when it came to internet censorship.
"It could be political showmanship and drama, there are only minor disagreements on both side's position on handling the internet in Iran. The current and the previous ICT minister of Iran under Rouhani have contributed more than any other cabinet for long term plans to censor the internet and localise internet of Iran,” he told VICE World News via phone.
"The reasons for the Rouhani administration’s effective policy in controlling the internet and cracking down on the digital rights of Iranians is because he hasn’t been just closing down the international services, but he has been slowly forcing Iranians to use domestic services as well.”
The Supreme Council for Cyberspace, a board chaired by Rouhani and attended by cabinet members, military, and officials appointed by the supreme leader himself, serves as a supervisory board on Iran's cyber policies. The institution was formed by a decree from Khamenei following the Stuxnet malware attack on the country's nuclear facility in September 2010, which caused substantial damages and setbacks to the controversial nuclear programme.
The board has overseen the National Information Network since 2013, which is best thought of like Iran’s version of the "Great Firewall of China.” Iran wants to get a tighter grip over the country's data and internet use to protect against what it calls "foreign infiltration," and remove content deemed "immoral" by the judiciary.
Rouhani has announced funds to develop more homegrown internet infrastructure, and locally hosted platforms and messaging apps, including the Iranian version of YouTube, Aparat.
But despite the government's best efforts to control the internet, the Iranian people have quietly challenged the orders and creeds of the Ayatollahs through VPNs and other workarounds. The presidential election in June is likely to see tensions over internet use flare, and more incoming government interference. Total shutdowns ahead of the elections are likely.
In November 2019, Iran went through a week-long internet shutdown following a wave of angry demonstrations ignited by increasing fuel prices, mostly organised over Telegram and social media.
"We had the long internet shut down in Iran, and it was only made possible because the Rouhani administration in the years prior had delivered that local internet and had pursued a policy that led to localise internet,” Azarhoosh said, adding that because this took place under Rouhani’s tenure, no candidate in Iran can credibly claim to be pro-digital rights.
Instagram is a highly charged, political issue right now. Lawyers for one influencer said they could not comment for this article, based on how sensitive their client’s case is, due to the risk they could be tied to the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on internet freedom and personal liberties.
An Iranian retailer who uses Instagram to sell their product would only speak on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliatory action from local authorities.
"The business is already bad enough, and if the government bans Instagram, it would be harder to reach customers, but almost everyone has VPN on their phones these days, and if that continues, we'll adapt to that too,” they told VICE World News via phone.
Azarhoosh, the digital rights expert, added: "There is a vibrant community in Iran that day after day is more aware of digital policies of the government, and they are fighting back, so this is a battle not finished yet.”