On Nov. 15, protestors rallied against the Iranian government after it announced fuel prices would increased by a minimum of 50 percent. They organized the way every modern society has: through the internet. Iran’s infrastructure and political system allowed the government to respond by shutting down Iranian internet within 24 hours. Despite its best efforts to keep word of the protests contained within its borders, photos, videos, and reports of human rights violations slipped out before Tehran could secure a full shutdown. Now that internet has been restored to their people and protests have been squashed, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani are beginning to publicly preach mercy for activists ensnared in the demonstrations.
Unofficial estimates peg the death toll between 180 and 450 people, but it is unlikely a firm number will ever be announced, especially by the government, which has been under increased international scrutiny following its nuclear dispute with the United States and an alleged attack on Saudi Aramco oil facilities. The government declared it would compensate families of those killed in the violent response to demonstrations and people who lose money during the event, such as destroyed property and vandalised businesses.
Rouhani also said a committee would be formed to further investigate the short-lived protests. Khamenei went a step further as he endorsed the use of the term “martyr” for people killed in the violence who had no part in causing it. Finally, Rouhani demanded authorities release “unarmed and innocent” protestors. In short, Tehran is in full-on damage control mode in an attempt to maintain its grip on power as its economy continues to spiral downward.
If the Iranian government was unpopular before the unrest, it certainly did not engender goodwill by its response. Although the riots that led to the ousting of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi took place 40 years ago, the two Iranian leaders likely view it as a possible outcome and maybe even feel a little remorse for their actions, not because they were violent or unjust, but because they carry high political costs. Tehran knows its history and neither Khamenei nor Rouhani want to be ousted and exiled like the shah 4 decades ago.
The process to take down the internet, be it for Iran or any nearly any other state, is quite complicated from a technological perspective, hence the 24-hour delay between the protests beginning and the internet flickering off. Internet across the globe is usually managed by the private sector via internet service providers (ISPs). These companies maintain the infrastructure – cables and datacenters – while selling access to customers. In Iran’s case, the government does not have a switch it can simply flick to turn off the internet as one would turn off a bedroom light, nor is that setup common.
China is a primary example of a nation with the means to fully control its internet because it designed the system with control mechanisms from the very beginning. In this textbook example, Beijing has the ability to wall off access to outside networks through what is known as “The Great Firewall” in addition to censoring its citizens. In China’s case, the government could disable the internet with a central switch, but its control does not extend to Hong Kong, which has seen activists coordinate through social media.
Network infrastructure, unless designed from the onset like China’s, is actually a barrier to government control.
“The more networks and connections a country has, the more difficult it is to cut access for good,” said Lukasz Olejnik, security researcher for Oxford University’s Center for Technology and Global Affairs. “To shut down a country’s access to internet, it takes a lot of preparations.”
Internet speed and access is a key measure of a nation’s wealth and the better the internet, the faster the economic development. Therefore, as networks grow more complex and sophisticated, the method of shutting them down does so as well. When Iran cut off internet access, it had to do so in a piecemeal operation in coordination with ISPs. As one would turn off access, the internet load would shift to the remaining operators.
“They would take down a portion of the network and then the network would automatically reroute around that dead portion to keep providing service. And then they would have to kind of do a whack-a-mole type situation to get it all under control,” said Lily Hay Newman, senior security reporter at Wired.
Iran’s recent stranglehold on the internet is not the first time it took such a reactionary measure, but it was the largest event of its nature. During the 2017-2018 protests, Iran disabled access the the Telegram messaging app, essentially ending the demonstrations.
Iran’s crackdown on protestors came at a critical juncture in the state’s geopolitical affairs. The stalemate between Tehran and Washington continues as neither side is willing to cave to the demands of the other; Trump refuses to lift sanctions and Iran remains unwilling to return to the provisions of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Officials from The Pentagon said America is weighing the option fo sending 4,000 to 7,000 more troops to the region as a deterrent after Iran transferred short-range missiles into Iraq. The movement of resources to Iraq is part of a larger effort from Iran to arm its militias in the Middle East. In November, the US Navy caught an Iranian ship hauling weapons to Yemen.
The few world powers that have sided at least partially with Iran in its economic plight are beginning to sour on the idea of supporting Tehran. Germany and the United Kingdom, alongside France, the most vocal European critic of US sanctions, have together penned a letter to the United Nations expressing concerns that Iran is now in possession of missiles able to deliver nuclear warheads. Taken alongside Iran’s political ambitions in Lebanon and Iraq, the entire situation is turning the tide against Rouhani’s government.
At the beginning of Iran’s row with the US, it maintained a more diplomatic posture and restrained attitude. As the economic situation worsened and Washington refused to relent to Iranian demands, Tehran became more desperate. Actions in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and against its own people imperil Iran’s chances of forging a deal with the US. At some point, it will cross the point of no return, possibly if its citizens tire of Rouhani’s recent antics. The US is renowned for its proclivity to foster coup attempts in Latin America and the Middle East. If Washington can convince discontented citizens who already are irked by Rouhani’s actions to support a challenger, it would be in line with countless historical examples for the US to try and oust Rouhani and possibly even Khamenei.