Iran: How the Internet is Becoming the Regime’s Most Powerful Weapon – Politics

Iran: How the Internet is Becoming the Regime's Most Powerful Weapon - Politics

No end to the headscarf riots in Iran. Although the government of the Islamic Republic has threatened the now hundreds of thousands of demonstrators with “resolute severity,” the unrest has spread to almost the entire country. The protests broke out after the death of a 22-year-old woman, who had been arrested by the religious police because her headscarf was too loose and died in police custody. Mahsa Amini, a member of the Kurdish minority, died apparently from brain injuries inflicted by beatings by the moral guards.

The demonstrators are already shouting “Death to the dictator” – meaning the most powerful man in the Islamic Republic, the spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Others chanted on the street: “We’d rather die than continue to endure humiliation.” This shows that the unrest triggered by the death of the 22-year-old is no longer solely directed against the treatment of Iranian women and the headscarf requirement. At least some of the protesters have long been questioning the entire system of the Islamic Republic.

The Ministry of the Interior claims to this day that Mahsa Amini was not mistreated, but died of heart failure through no fault of the police. The death of the young woman is becoming more and more the culmination point in the crisis of the theocracy that has been smoldering for years. This was founded in 1979 after long unrest in an “Islamic Revolution” including the fall of the Iranian monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi.

However, it is not the first crisis in the Islamic Republic. Citizen protests have been put down before: in 2009, 2017 and 2019, for example, large waves of demonstrations were beaten up, regardless of whether they were politically motivated, such as the Green Movement after the election fraud of 2009, or whether they were triggered by poor economic policies and rising energy prices in 2019.

The government has a legitimacy problem

Meanwhile, the regime is suffering from an ever-growing lack of credibility. President Ebrahim Raisi came into office in 2021 after elections had already been manipulated during the nomination of candidates. He was the preferred candidate of the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So far, however, Raisi has not been able to point to any successes in economic policy. He has also not been able to achieve anything for Iran in the negotiations for the nuclear agreement concluded in 2015 and suspended by the USA in 2018: the talks with the 5+1 states are dragging on without any results. As a result, the sanctions will not be lifted and the economic situation will not improve.

In addition, the successor of the spiritual leader himself is in the room: The 83-year-old Khamenei is reportedly seriously ill. A successor is not in the offing. Raisi, who was in the conversation, has too little to show. Khamenei’s alleged plan to enthrone his son Modschtaba is likely to meet with resistance from both the people and the regime.

In view of the extent of the current protests, it is foreseeable that the government will react with even greater severity. President Raisi said the demonstrators wanted to overthrow the government. They would be instigated by foreign forces. The Amini case is a pretext to rehearse the uprising. “Protests yes, riots no,” said the president. He will not allow rioters and “mercenaries paid from abroad” to endanger security. Raisi called on the police, army, revolutionary guards and judiciary to crack down.

It is conceivable that the government will also mobilize its own supporters – which are still large. A counter-demonstration was formed in Tehran after Friday prayers. The participants called for the demonstrators to be executed.

The Islamic regime is threatened by the fact that the unrest has now reached almost all 31 provinces and is no longer just being carried out by women and young people. Apparently, members of all ethnic groups and religious groups join. Likewise, the protests do not seem to be carried out by a single stratum of society. The clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces are getting harder and harder: according to state radio, 41 people have died by Sunday.

Access to the Internet becomes a weapon

Some of the police are already shooting live, the protesters in turn attack police stations, set cars and garbage containers on fire and attack police officers and members of the hated Basij militia. Videos can be seen on Twitter of police officers grabbing, hitting or brutally throwing demonstrators, including women, to the ground. There are also videos in which protesters brutally beat security forces. The authenticity of the recordings cannot be verified.

An important weapon in the conflict is the Internet. The protesters organize themselves via messenger services such as Whatsapp or Instagram. They connect across the country using their mobile phones and spread their slogans. In return, the government can throttle or turn off the Internet, effectively blinding the demonstrators.

According to reports, the network in the country is already severely slowed down. “The Internet is one of the regime’s most powerful weapons when there is unrest,” the BBC quoted Isik Mater from the organization Netblocks, which is committed to digital rights and cyber security, among other things. She said the protesters had no other means of organizing. The regime had already disrupted telecommunications during earlier protests and then crushed the protests. An unnamed demonstrator told the British broadcaster: “We are afraid that the world public will forget about Iran as soon as the government shuts down the Internet completely.”

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