Group conversations on WhatsApp, Telegram and other messaging apps are frozen in time. Foreign emails sent to friends inside the country go undelivered. Iranian Instagram — a vital domain for the self-expression of ordinary Iranians — has no new images. And tweets in Persian that claim to originate from Iran are being sent either from fake accounts and bots outside the country or from the small number of people who still have access to the Internet (among them, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).
It turns out there is very little the outside world can do to remedy matters.
Policymakers and activists in the West have long been discussing how to overcome the technical obstacles to the spread of information in Iran. How can we bring freer access to a country whose telecommunication authorities block access to websites and routinely disrupt service during moments of unrest?
At the same time, though, some of our sanctions policies were pushing in the opposite direction. By prohibiting Iranians from accessing the global financial system, we also cut them off from e-commerce platforms. Nor, for similar reasons, are they able to use cloud services.
The Iranian authorities responded by developing their own domestic Internet (known as the National Information Network). The NIN has, among other things, become the gateway through which Iranians access global networks.
In 2009, when Iranians took to the streets to protest the contested reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cutting off the Internet would have entailed cutting off millions of telephone lines. The authorities did manage to slow access times, which was in itself incredibly disruptive. But access to the global Internet wasn’t completely severed as it is now.
Today, though, all the government has to do is push the “off” switch between the NIN and the networks of the outside world. Just for good measure, the regime also shut down most of the NIN itself, thus hampering Iranians’ ability to communicate with each other.
“Unfortunately, there’s no immediate solution besides politically pressuring Iran’s government to restore access,” Amir Rashidi, the Internet security and digital rights researchers Researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told me. “We have to learn from mistakes and find a long-term solution.”
In recent years, the U.S. government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on Internet freedom initiatives directed toward Iran. The State Department’s feeble response to questions about how it plans to help get Iranians back online tells you everything you need to know about how that money has been spent.
This week, Brian Hook, the United States’ special representative for Iran, said his team was looking into ways “to help the people work around the Iranian regime shutting down the Internet.” He didn’t elaborate, probably because there are few feasible ways to help Iranians get back online.
That’s because the Iranian government specifically developed its current infrastructure to minimize interference from the outside world. Needless to say, that’s not the fault of the West. We could have expected Tehran to take its technological evolution in this direction anyway. But our policies certainly haven’t helped.
Early in his term, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ended the telecommunications monopoly and licensed several domestic companies to develop and provide 3G and 4G services to work on the NIN. The domestic Internet soon provided faster and more reliable service, something most people supported. Few of them noticed the catch — that they could access the global Web only through the new domestic network. Now, that weakness has become manifest.
“Rouhani is one of the people most responsible for this suppression. This Internet blackout is unprecedented, it's suffocating,” a source in Iran told me. “The system wants to silence everyone. Inside, outside, journalists, politicians, world leaders, other countries.”
There is no law, after all — domestic or international — obliging Iran’s government to provide unfettered Internet access to the country’s population.
“If the U.S. wants to help it needs to understand the consequences of its tech sanctions on Iran. The damage is already done,” Rashidi told me. “They need someone who knows Iran, and I don’t see anyone like that in the current administration.”
Rather than issuing empty statements about helping Iranians share videos of protests, we must develop ways to get them back online and keep them there. In addition to removing restrictions that block Iranians from using common personal and business online services, this would include providing international cloud services and infrastructure.
Otherwise, they’ll remain as defenseless as they are right now.
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