WASHINGTON - The Trump administration says it is "very concerned" about Tehran blocking Iranians from communicating via social media platforms in a bid to dampen several days of nationwide anti-government protests.
Iran blocked access to messaging app Telegram and photo-sharing app Instagram on Sunday, with state media saying the moves were meant to maintain peace. Iranians had been using the apps to communicate about the street demonstrations, the biggest outpouring of public discontent with Iran's clerical leaders since 2009 protests against the results of a disputed presidential election.
The current unrest began with a relatively small protest this past Thursday in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city, and the main base for the opponents of moderate president Hassan Rouhani, before spreading to other parts of the country.
In an interview with VOA Persian on Sunday, Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton said there is not much the U.S. government can do about Iran's social media clampdown. But he said the Trump administration expects U.S. and other Western companies to halt any concessions to the Iranian government.
"(They should) not bow to any demands for censorship or curtailment of information," Anton said. "(They should) continue doing business the way they always have, and let information flow freely into Iran." He added that U.S. officials will be watching how those companies handle the issue.
Telegram in particular is very popular in Iran, with more than 50 percent of the country's 80 million population said to be active on the app.
Telegram CEO Pavel Durov, a Russian entrepreneur whose company has offices in London, posted a tweet on Sunday, saying Iran had blocked access to the service after his refusal to shut down communication channels that he said were being used for peaceful protests.
Iran blocked access to Telegram for its citizens due to opposition activity in channels – my thoughts here https://t.co/wxW8hS9i2s— Pavel Durov (@durov) December 31, 2017
In an online statement, Durov said it is unclear if the blocking of Telegram will be permanent or temporary. He said Telegram would "rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions."
In a separate report published on Sunday, the Associated Press said U.S. tech giant Facebook, which owns Instagram, declined to comment about Iran's blocking of the photo-sharing app.
Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the Iranian government in a Sunday tweet for "clos(ing) down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate".
In his VOA Persian interview, Anton said the Trump administration is coordinating with its allies in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere to apply pressure on Tehran to allow the protests to continue and to address the protesters' complaints about the high cost of living, government corruption and lack of democratic freedoms.
"We want to let them know that the world's civilized nations stand with them and are in favor of their just grievances being addressed and against the destabilizing behavior and oppression of the regime," Anton said.
In his first public response to the protests, Iranian state media quoted President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday as acknowledging that Iranians have the right to protest and criticize his government. But Rouhani said social unrest and destruction of public property are unacceptable. He also said Trump had "no right" to sympathize with the Iranian people. The Trump administration labels the Iranian government as the world's top state sponsor of terrorism — a charge Tehran rejects — and issued travel bans that have blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas.
The protests after the Iran's 2009 elections were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and voters demanded the votes be recounted. Those protests had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Iran's economy has improved since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, in which Iran limited its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some international sanctions. Iran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars' worth of Western aircraft.
But that improvement has not reached the average Iranian. Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 percent. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 percent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the economic protests.
"The protesters are demanding a better life," said Hooshang Amirahmadi, founder and president of the American-Iranian Council and a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. "They are saying they want a huge change, they want a radical change. They are not going to leave the streets until they get it."
Protests have increased in frequency and intensity over past few months because of economic change — prices going up, inflation, banks under pressure, people worried about deposits disappearing, according to Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
"Rouhani, I think this is a wake-up call for him. Rouhani really has taken the people who voted for him for granted. Nobody really genuinely thought he was a reformist but hoped that he would at least take certain steps to move in that direction. He's done none of it," Vatanka said. "In fact, since his re-election in May, he's turned toward the right. That has just infuriated those reformists who sort of bought the idea that gradual reform in the Islamic Republic is possible."
But Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst for the Foundation for Defense and Democracies, told VOA he believes the protesters are using anger about the economy as a way to express general grievances over the government.
"What is true is that the Iranian people want accountability, respect, justice. And they want their government to put their interests — national interests — ahead of the narrow, factional or regime interests," Behnam said.
He also said many Iranians are angered over what they believe is pointless intervention in regional affairs.
"The average Iranian is looking at the political fights it's picking in the region and saying 'why do we need that?' And they're worried about their basic lot in life — and coming to the reality that this government cannot deliver. That's why you heard slogans like 'Not Gaza, Not Lebanon. My life for Iran.'"
Carla Babb, Margaret Besheer, Michelle Quinn contributed to this report
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA Persian