Last week, as the rest of Washington, D.C. was on vacation, Donald Trump turned his attention to the sudden outpouring of discontent sweeping Iran, where thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in the most significant uprising since the Green Revolution of 2009. “Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption & its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” Trump wrote. “Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves.” The president, who has made a tougher line on Iran a signature foreign-policy goal, was particularly focused on the regime’s crackdown on social media channels that have become the lifeblood of Iran’s resurgent reform movement. “Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate,” he warned, as President Hassan Rouhani’s government moved to block the Internet on mobile networks across the country.
By declaring his support for the protesters on Twitter, Trump waded into a digital battleground that has consumed Iran, where social media has become ground zero in a nationwide fight to control the protest narrative. On Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the president by blaming “recent events” in Iran on its Western enemies, including unnamed intelligence services. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said, “Hashtags and messages about the situation in Iran come from the United States, Britain, and Saudi Arabia. What is happening on social networks concerning the situation in the country is a proxy war against the Iranian people.”
This information war, launched by the Iranian regime against its own people, has profound implications for the balance of power within Iran and the wider region, including Saudi Arabia. The current unrest in Iran, which began in the religious heartland cities of Mashhad and Qom, is far more homegrown than Khamenei cares to admit. Even core supporters of the government system are tired of the hopeless economic conditions, the shocking price hikes in food and other staples, and the lack of jobs and business opportunities. At the same time, the government’s swift moves to lock down social-media access underscores how important—and dangerous—the tools to discus these conditions have become.
For oppressed people around the world, the rise of social networks—accessible with only a smartphone and a satellite signal—has had radical effects on civil society. The use of tech platforms as a protest tool has transformed Silicon Valley, too. It was Twitter that powered the protests that nearly toppled the Iranian regime in 2009, allowing demonstrations to be broadcast to the wider world, and turning Twitter into a household name in the process. When the San Francisco-based start-up planned to shut down access to its site while carrying out routine maintenance, protesters bravely patrolled the streets venting their frustration. My then-colleague at the U.S. State Department, Jared Cohen, saw the implications on the information battlefield and implored Twitter to forgo the shutdown. In the end, Twitter moved its network update to the middle of day on the West Coast—1:30 A.M. in Tehran—to help the protests continue. For a brief shining moment, the Iranian people were emboldened—and the country’s theocracy looked vulnerable.
At that time, there were over one million mobile-phone users in the country. Today, there are some 45 million. State-run media no longer have a monopoly on information, and government censors are taking their cues from technology playbooks to keep up. Iranian telecom providers recognize that there are no borders in this new war and are slowing Internet service to the point where it’s basically a blackout. But this won’t last long, as protest leaders are very good at getting around the Web censors and back online. Apps like Telegram, Line, and WhatsApp are the new front lines, giving protestors the ability to punch above their weight on the digital battlefield. With the advent of new encrypted platforms, government control and the manipulation of any given population or market segment has become more and more difficult; citizens now have independent news sources to turn to for facts and reliable information, as opposed to government disinformation.
While we celebrate the technology that has empowered the Iranian people to rise up, it is also critical that we not underestimate the regime’s vast and coercive powers. Iran’s Supreme Council (the real shot-callers in Iran) control the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, hold major veto power over government policy, and have proven more than capable of deadly force to bring protest movements to heel. In this environment, words without action can have horrific consequences. It should be remembered that Western powers also encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991. But words and “support” alone failed to do the trick. Saddam slaughtered the opposition, then blamed the West for all the bloodshed. Iranian leaders, too, are playing the long game and will do whatever is necessary to remain in power. There is no backup plan for them (as opposed to the Shah’s men of the 1970s). The legions of protestors and their supporters, mostly young people, represent a new armada on the digital landscape. Recent metrics show an exponential increase in the consumption of information among Iran’s highly educated populace, and the use of new apps like Telegram and Line. The more oppressive regimes are threatened by the freedom of information, they more they are liable to crack down.
With Iran once again at the edge of revolution, we must be methodical as we watch from the sidelines. Our National Security Council and State Department have rightly reiterated their interest in using a variety of options to hold Iran’s leaders accountable to their people, including sanctions. If we have learned anything from various failed Arab revolutions in recent times, it’s that they need to be organic to succeed. If the chaos results in a weakened and wounded Iran, the government could become an even more disruptive and unpredictable partner for both Iraq and Syria, as well as for Turkey and Russia, Tehran’s current allies of convenience.
And more can be done to address the calamity brewing in Iran. We need to publicly censure those regimes and organizations that provide Tehran with the technology to repress and censor personal communications. We can promote social-media platforms for protestors and citizens to voice their issues, and to disseminate accurate information—such as on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe’s excellent live blogs, which reach millions inside and outside Iran. And we can urge allies like the E.U., Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland to play their role. By holding the regime accountable, the information battlefield can play an important, possibly decisive, roll in quelling the violence, preventing a bloody and massive crackdown on civilians while providing a real avenue for operational change.