November 26, 2019 | Policy Brief
U.S. Sanctions Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology
The Trump administration sanctioned Iran’s minister of information and communications technology (ICT) on Friday for his longstanding role in suppressing Iranian citizens’ access to the internet. The designation of Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi marks an expression of solidarity with the Iranian people, who recently faced a weeklong internet blackout aimed at weakening their ability to organize protests and expose Tehran’s bloody repression of them.
The suppression of online communications constitutes a key function of the ICT Ministry, which administers a vast telecommunications infrastructure that not only blocks millions of websites but also aids Tehran’s efforts to monitor dissidents. Keenly aware that Iranians utilized social media to organize mass protests in 2009 and again in recent years, Tehran fears the internet’s role in promoting resistance.
The ICT Ministry runs the Telecommunications Infrastructure Company (TIC), which developed the National Information Network (NIN), a state-controlled national internet, or intranet, that offers Iranians key online services, such as email and banking. In practice, however, the NIN serves as an instrument of censorship and intimidation, enabling the regime to conduct surveillance, block international websites, and wage cyberattacks.
The 38-year-old Jahromi, Iran’s youngest cabinet minister ever appointed, secured his post in August 2017 after serving four years as deputy ICT minister. In June 2017, then-ICT Minister Mahmoud Vaezi said that during President Hassan Rouhani’s first term, the ICT Ministry had closed seven million websites and blocked 121,000 programs that enabled users to evade government censors.
From 2009 to 2013, Jahromi helped develop the Intelligence Ministry’s online surveillance infrastructure. From 2002 to 2009, he worked for Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, which bears responsibility for the violent death of countless regime opponents both at home and abroad since the 1980s. In 2009, Jahromi reportedly assisted security forces in detaining and harshly interrogating Iranians who participated in nationwide protests. In 2016, he became the CEO of the Telecommunications Infrastructure Company, offering him a leading role in developing the NIN.
Jahromi has expressed pride in his resume. “I worked in the Intelligence Ministry,” he said, “but unfortunately there’s this approach that whoever works in that ministry is bad. If the ministry is bad, then why has it been created?” In fact, he declared, he considered it “an honor” to work there. Before Jahromi’s appointment, one Iranian lawmaker warned that the incoming minister could transform the ICT Ministry into a “second Intelligence Ministry.”
Those words of caution have proven prescient. During Jahromi’s tenure, Tehran has repeatedly blocked social media platforms like Instagram and Telegram to stymie protests and other forms of dissent. “Maintaining national security is very important,” said Jahromi regarding the latest flare-up of protests in Iran, which began on November 15 in response to the regime’s hike in gas prices.
Since his appointment as ICT minister, rumors have circulated that Jahromi intends to run for Iran’s presidency, although he said in August he still has not “reached any conclusion on this issue.” In multiple interviews, Jahromi has also hailed the importance of internet freedom, notwithstanding his prominent role in suppressing it.
In this sense, Jahromi’s rhetoric parallels that of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who cultivates an image as a moderate and a reformer while his government continues to crush dissent and support terrorism. Washington’s designation of Jahromi should make clear that he is no different than the president who appointed him.
The Trump administration should now build upon Jahromi’s designation by sanctioning other key human rights abusers. Potential targets include Mahmoud Alavi, the minister of intelligence; Hossein Ashtari, the head of Iran’s police, formally known as the Law Enforcement Force; and Gholamreza Soleimani, the commander of the Basij militia. Like Jahromi, each has played a major role in suppressing protests and other forms of dissent.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Tzvi and CEFP, subscribe HERE. Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.