On November 22, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Twitter: “The U.S. is sanctioning the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mohammad Jahromi, for helping shut down the Iranian internet. We will hold members of the Iranian regime accountable for their violent repression of the Iranian people. #Internet4Iran.” Pictured: Pompeo on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The hundreds of anti-regime protesters and civil rights activists who have been arrested by Iranian security forces since the eruption of mass demonstrations on November 15 — after the government raised the price of gasoline — are in danger of torture, forced confessions and even death sentences.
According to the organization Iran Human Rights (IHR):
“The detainees are held in unknown places, and their families are not informed about their whereabouts. Moreover, there has been a total internet blackout imposed by the authorities making information flow very difficult.
“‘Most of the detainees could not call their families. Their relatives have tried to find out where they are held. They even do not know their beloved ones are dead or alive,’ a well-informed source told IHR.”
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of IHE, said: “Today, Iranian people need the international community’s attention, more than ever.”
According to Amnesty International, although there are reports from Iranians that “as many as 200 [demonstrators] have been killed,” Tehran’s state-run media has been downplaying the numbers by saying that only a “handful” of protesters have died.
In addition, Amnesty reported:
“Various government officials, including the Supreme Leader, president and head of the judiciary, have demonized the protesters and warned that security forces will confront protesters with force.
“On 16 November, Iran’s interior minister said that the authorities will no longer show ‘tolerance’ and ‘self-control’ towards the protesters, despite mounting reports of protester casualties.
“During a speech on 17 November, Iran’s Supreme Leader described the protesters as ‘villains’ who were incited to violence by counter-revolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran. He ordered security forces to ‘implement their duties’ to end the protests, effectively giving the green light for the brutality to continue.
“Judicial and security bodies have also sent threatening mass text messages warning people to stay away from ‘illegal gatherings’ or face legal action.”
Iranian officials have also threatened the protesters with execution:
“The Supreme Leader’s representative at Kayhan Newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, wrote last Monday: ‘Some of the judiciary officials are sure that the execution by hanging awaits the leaders of the protests.’
“The Supreme Leader’s deputy representative at IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], Hassan Tayebifar, asked the judiciary to issue the toughest verdict for the protesters. Toughest verdict in the Iranian Islamic Penal Code is the death penalty.
“Fars Province chief prosecutor threatened the protesters in the same way. In Shiraz, the capital of Fars province, ‘at least 200 people were sent to quarantine ward in Adel Abad prison. Four of them are wounded. At least one is shot,’ a source from Adel Abad prison told IHR. According to the source, Seyed Reza Taheri is the name of the wounded person. He suffers from pain and is in danger of infection.”
Amnesty also reported:
“On 16 November, less than a day after the protests began, the authorities implemented an ongoing near-total shutdown of the internet, shutting off nearly all means of online communications for people inside Iran. The resulting information blackout is a deliberate attempt by the authorities to prevent people from sharing images and videos of the deadly force being used by security forces.
“According to the NGO NetBlocks, Iran’s connectivity to the outside world has fallen to 4% of ordinary levels since the protests began. All mobile networks have been disconnected and there is a near-total national internet and telecommunication blackout, although some users have still been able to access the internet through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other means.”
The internet company Oracle described the information blackout as “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”
This internet blackout, according to IHR director Amiry-Moghaddam, “might indicate the Iranian authorities’ plans to use even more violence against the protesters.”
On November 21, US President Donald Trump tweeted:
“Iran has become so unstable that the regime has shut down their entire Internet System so that the Great Iranian people cannot talk about the tremendous violence taking place within the country….
“They want ZERO transparency, thinking the world will not find out the death and tragedy that the Iranian Regime is causing!”
The same day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted:
“I have asked the Iranian protestors to send us their videos, photos, and information documenting the regime’s crackdown on protestors. The U.S. will expose and sanction the abuses.”
The next day, on November 22, Pompeo announced on Twitter:
“The U.S. is sanctioning the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mohammad Jahromi, for helping shut down the Iranian internet. We will hold members of the Iranian regime accountable for their violent repression of the Iranian people. #Internet4Iran.”
It is likely that Pompeo’s warnings had a direct effect: The following day, on November 23, NetBlocks confirmed:
“[Internet] connectivity has been restored with multiple fixed-line providers across much of Iran, allowing users to get online via wifi. Current connectivity levels have risen to 64% after earlier flatlining at 5% for several days. Mobile internet remains generally unavailable.
“Network measurements indicate that most social media remain blocked in line with long-running Iranian policy, although access is possible using VPN software.”
Europe’s reaction, which has been far more tapered, probably is not perceived by the Iranian authorities as the kind of pressure to cause concern.
Take the following statement, released on November 21 by an EU spokeswoman, for example:
“The protests in several Iranian cities over the past days have, according to reports, led to serious loss of life and left many people injured. We convey our condolences to the families of victims and wish a speedy recovery to those injured.
“Socio-economic challenges should be addressed through inclusive dialogue and not through the use of violence. We expect Iran’s security forces to exercise maximum restraint in handling the protests and for protestors to demonstrate peacefully. Any violence is unacceptable. The rights to freedom of expression and assembly must be guaranteed.
“We also expect the Iranian authorities to ensure the free flow of information and access to the internet.”
To help the Iranian people, at the mercy of their oppressive regime, the world would do better to emulate the Trump administration’s tough posture. European appeasement and diplospeak only embolden, rather than weaken, tyrants such as those in Iran.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.