Iran restricts internet access as women’s rights protests spread


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

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

As the protests spread, authorities on Thursday expanded their campaign to limit internet access by tightening blocks on platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, according to Netblocks, an internet watchdog that tracks global traffic outages. Social media programs have been widely used to organize and share images of protests.

According to the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis Project, or IODA, another internet monitor, Internet access through the country’s largest mobile carriers was severely disrupted for several hours on Thursday.

Iranian officials have not commented on the internet outage. Deputy Communications Minister Mohammad Khansari told state television that Iran’s internal messaging services and websites were working normally.

Authoritarian governments around the world are increasingly using the tactic of cutting people off from the global internet to quell protests, censor speech, monitor elections and silence people, human rights advocates say. According to Access Now, a non-profit organization that supports free internet, Iran accounted for five of the 23 shutdowns recorded in the Middle East and North Africa last year. Others on the 23 closure list include Sudan, Yemen and the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel for various reasons, including security.

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

The recent shutdown has affected the daily lives of millions of Iranians. Many in Tehran reported problems trying to access services such as cash machines, online payments and car-sharing apps.

At least 16 people were killed during the protests that started on Saturday after the funeral of Mahsa Amin in western Iran.


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Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

It was not immediately clear whether the internet shutdown helped curb the demonstrations, but the flow of social media posts about the protests appeared to be slower.

Protests continued in Tehran’s neighborhoods on Thursday, with women burning their headscarves, according to videos shown by the US-funded news agency Radio Farda.

Security forces are also coming down harder on protesters. At least 16 people have been killed in demonstrations in western Iran since protests broke out on Saturday after Ms Amin’s funeral.

Meanwhile, some demonstrators targeted the security forces. Iranian state media reported that 17 people were killed, including both protesters and police.

Ms. Amin’s death and the actions of Iranian security forces to quell the protests drew condemnation from many countries in the West, including the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Iranian authorities are restricting access to social media platforms used by protesters in Tehran and other parts of the country to organize and share images.


Image:

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police and senior security officials over Ms. Ami’s death and violence against protesters. The action blocks any assets the targets may hold in US jurisdiction and prohibits business and financial dealings with them. Analysts say this is more of a public condemnation of Tehran than the blacklists, which are expected to force the regime to end its violent crackdown.

The list of sanctioned officials includes the head of Iran’s morality police, Mohammad Rustami Çeşme Gachi, and Haji Ahmad Mirzai, who was the head of the Tehran branch of the morality police at the time of Ms. Amini’s detention and death.

Some US lawmakers are urging the Treasury to do more to approve technology exports to Iranian citizens that could help them resist Tehran’s crackdown. “Congress calls on the Treasury Department to do everything it can to help the Iranian people stay connected to the Internet,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee member Claudia Tenney (R., NY). “We have to cut through any red tape and get it done,” he said, referring to the license required to export communications technology to Iran.

Elon Musk said earlier this week that his satellite internet system Starlink would seek exemptions from sanctions to make its service available in Iran, responding to calls to help Iranians get free internet access.

A cottage industry of tools, some funded in part by the US government, has sprung up to help the Iranian people, including journalists and dissidents, access the internet in the country. Starlink can add a significant new source of internet access to these tools. But it was not clear how Mr Musk intended to ship the Starlink kits to Iran or to whom the company would distribute them.

Iranian officials have rejected Western responses to Ms. Amin’s death, saying it reflects a double standard, criticizing Tehran and allowing other abuses.

— Aresu Eqbali and Ian Talley contributed to this article.

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

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