Iran restricts internet access as women’s rights protests spread

Iran on Thursday restricted access to the internet in large parts of the country as authorities try to curb a women’s rights protest movement that has relied on social media to voice dissent and rally support, while the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police.

The death late last week of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress code has sparked demonstrations across the country. Protesters have clashed violently with security forces who used tear gas and fired live ammunition.

As the protests spread, authorities on Thursday expanded their campaign to restrict access to the internet, tightening blocks on platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, according to Netblocks, an internet observatory that monitors global traffic disruptions. Social media apps have been widely used to organize and share footage of the protests.

Internet access through the nation’s major mobile carriers was severely disrupted for several hours Thursday, according to the Internet Outage Detection & Analysis project, or IODA, another Internet monitor.

Iranian officials did not comment on the internet disruptions. Mohammad Khansari, the deputy communications minister, told state television that Iran’s domestic messaging services and websites were operating normally.

Authoritarian governments around the world are increasingly using the tactic of cutting people off from the global web, often to stop protests, censor speech, control elections and silence people, human rights advocates say. Iran accounted for five of 23 shutdowns documented in the Middle East and North Africa last year, according to Access Now, a nonprofit that advocates for a free Internet. Others on the list of 23 shutdowns included Sudan, Yemen and the Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories for a variety of reasons, including security.

Netblocks said the latest restrictions in Iran are the most severe since economic protests in November 2019 rocked the country.

The latest shutdown has affected the daily lives of millions of Iranians. Many in Tehran said they faced problems while trying to access services such as ATMs, online payments and car-sharing apps.

At least 16 people in demonstrations in western Iran have died since the protests began on Saturday after Mahsa Amini’s funeral.


Photo:

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

It was not immediately clear whether the internet shutdowns have helped slow the demonstrations, but the flow of social media related to the protests appeared to be much slower.

On Thursday, protests continued in Tehran neighborhoods, with women burning their veils, according to videos shown by US-funded news organization Radio Farda.

Security forces are also cracking down harder on protesters. At least 16 people have been killed in demonstrations in western Iran, according to Hengaw, a human rights organization in Iran’s Kurdish region where Ms Amini came from, since protests began on Saturday after Ms Amini’s funeral, when clashes broke out with security forces.

Meanwhile, some protesters have attacked security forces. Iranian state media have reported 17 deaths, counting both protesters and police.

Amini’s death and actions by Iran’s security forces to suppress the protests have drawn condemnation from many in the West, including the US, the EU and the UN

Iranian authorities are restricting access to social media platforms that protesters in Tehran and elsewhere in the country have used to organize and share footage.


Photo:

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Thursday, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police and senior security officials over Amini’s death and violence against the protesters. The action blocks any assets the targets may have within US jurisdiction and precludes business and financial relationships with them. They are a more symbolic public criticism of Tehran than blacklists expected to force the regime to end its violent crackdown, analysts say.

The list of sanctioned officials includes Mohammad Rostami Cheshmeh Gachi, the head of Iran’s morality police, and Haj Ahmad Mirzaei, who was the morality police’s Tehran branch chief during Amini’s detention and death.

Some US lawmakers are calling on the Treasury Department to do more to approve technology exports that could help Iranian citizens counter Tehran’s repression. “Congress is calling on the Treasury Department to do everything in its power to help the Iranian people stay connected to the Internet,” said Rep. Claudia Tenney (R., NY), member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We have to cut through any bureaucratic red tape and get this done,” she said, referring to the license required to export communications technology to Iran.

Responding to calls to help Iranians with free access to the Internet, Elon Musk said earlier this week that his satellite Internet system Starlink would seek an exemption from sanctions to make its service available in Iran.

A cottage industry of tools, some partly funded by the US government, has sprung up to help the Iranian people – including journalists and dissidents – access the internet in the country. Starlink could add a significant new source of Internet access to these tools. But it was not clear how Mr. Musk intends to send Starlink kits to Iran or whoever the company will distribute them to.

Iranian officials have rejected Western responses to Ms Amini’s death, saying they reflect a double standard, criticizing Tehran while letting other abuses go.

—Aresu Eqbali and Ian Talley contributed to this article.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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