A leading advocate for internet freedom recently began his fifth hunger strike in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. The incarceration of Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident, reflects Tehran’s ongoing efforts to restrict cyber space, which the regime regards as a threat not merely to its survival, but also to the Islamic character of the people it rules.
Iran’s internet, in the words of Freedom House, is “one of the least free in the world.” Key social media such as Facebook remain illegal, while Iranians who criticize the regime online are subject to prosecution. In June, Minister of Communication and Technology Mahmoud Vaezi claimed that Tehran had closed seven million websites during President Hassan Rouhani’s first term.
Still, Iranians continue to access the web illegally. In March, Saeed Reza Ameli, a member of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, stated that 76 percent of Iranians use internet circumvention tools. “In many ways,” Freedom House notes, “internet use in Iran remains a cat-and-mouse game in which tech savvy individuals try to push red lines and circumvent the harsh restrictions imposed on them by state security.”
The Islamic Republic’s efforts to restrict cyber space in earnest date to the 2009 Green Revolution, when millions of Iranians utilized social media to organize mass protests. Since then, Tehran has repeatedly described the uprising as a U.S.-backed conspiracy to oust the regime.
In a 2013 address, for example, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, contended that Washington “hoped to overthrow the Islamic Republic with the help of media activities and networks such as Facebook, Twitter and other such networks.”
This paranoia mirrors a more profound religious fear. In Tehran’s view, the internet threatens the nation’s soul by providing exposure to Western values that contradict the regime’s Islamist creed. In this sense, as Iranian prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri argued in December, the internet “isn’t freedom. It’s the worst kind of bondage.”
In a speech in June, Khamenei asserted that false ideas “are engulfing our internet users like an avalanche. Why should we allow this to happen? Why should we allow things which are against our values, against our well-established principles, and against the main constituents of our national identity to be developed inside the country by the people who bear malice against us?”
Not surprisingly, then, according to a March 2017 report by Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, “the top 500 blocked websites are dedicated to the arts, social issues, news and other popular culture issues.”
The bureaucracy of Iran’s internet further reflects the regime’s vision. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the paramilitary group charged with preserving Tehran’s revolutionary ideology, controls the bulk of Iran’s telecommunications sector, including the Telecommunications Company of Iran, the country’s largest telecom company.
Accordingly, the imprisonment of Zakka, whom the regime first detained in September 2015, shows Iran’s theocratic worldview. By targeting an activist for a free Iranian cyber space who once resided in the United States, Tehran seeks not merely to intimidate Washington, but to demonstrate that the Islamic Republic can resist Western cultural influence.
The Trump administration should raise the costs of such behavior. In the coming months, it should increase sanctions on Iran for its domestic repression, with a particular focus on Iran’s telecommunications sector, which received sanctions relief under the 2015 nuclear deal. Nizar Zakka’s latest hunger strike, President Trump should make clear, must be his last.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.