Social Media

Will Iran's 'Moderate' President Ban WhatsApp?

The government is split about banning the app, and its citizens' access to communicating with people in other countries hangs in the balance.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

Image: Jan Persiel/Flickr

Twitter and Facebook have been banned in Iran since 2009, and the country banned Instagram earlier this year, but Iran's judiciary is finally getting pushback from the self-professed "moderate" sitting president as the country's top prosecutor tries to shut down WhatsApp, Viber and Tango. 

Those are, of course, some of the last popular communications tools Iranians have to connect to the world's social networks, and the country is currently trying to decide what to do about them.

Citing "criminal content" being sent around on the apps, the judiciary sent an open letter to Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran's communications minister, demanding that the sites be taken down in a month, something that he has already resisted doing for much of this year.

Back in February, Iran's top prosecutor, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, functioning as the head of the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content, ruled that WhatsApp should be shut down in the country, but Mahmoud Vaezi bucked convention and refused. 

"Until the time that we have a replacement for these social networks, the administration opposes filtering those networks that are not destructive and do not injure public morality," Vaezi said.

Mohseni-Ejei called this refusal unlawful, but WhatsApp remained unblocked in the country anyway.

But the internet doing internet things—passing around jokes about the Ayatollah Khomeini—has reignited the judiciary's drive to shut down the messaging systems.

"In the last few weeks, criminal content was published and crimes were committed against Islamic modesty and morals and … widespread offensive content was published against the founder of the Islamic Republic Imam Khomeini," Mohseni-Ejei wrote this week

If Vaezi doesn't ban them within a month, the judiciary has promised to shut it down on its own.

"The open letter from Mohseni-Eje'i is just the latest episode in an on-going battle between Iran's judiciary and the Rouhani administration over the online space," Gissou Nia, the incoming deputy director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran told me via email. "Just last year Rouhani's Cultural Minister spoke of lifting the ban on Facebook and Twitter in the country, but that possibility seems more and more remote as the judiciary is now trying to claim an extra layer of 'real estate' in online repression, specifically of the peer-to-peer messaging services that have become increasingly popular among Iranians."

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani was elected partially because he promised to be more moderate about these sorts of things, and this is going to be a huge test of whether his term will be more of the same or whether the country is actually going to open up a bit.

Yesterday, I heard him speak in Midtown Manhattan, and he didn't sound like much of a reformer. 

CNN's Fareed Zakaria asked Rouhani why seven people were sentenced to jail and 91 lashes for making a "harmless" music video for Pharrell's song "Happy" and Rouhani replied that what the judiciary does is not really his business, and that if they broke the law, they should be punished, whether he likes it or not. 

Well, Rouhani promised to have a more liberal internet policy, and now he's got the chance to prove it with this Viber/Tango/WhatsApp situation. Earlier this month, he tweeted that he doesn't favor filters; it remains to be seen if he'll actually do anything.

"In this country, we recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web," Rouhani said back in May. "We do not actually come face-to-face with other people. Yet, the effects of cyberspace are quite visible on society and the country. It even influences people's lifestyle."

I'm guessing that's exactly what the judiciary is afraid of.