Tehran revives intranet after imposing internet blackout

Until the regime somehow manages to achieve sanctions relief from the United States, it is likely to face recurrent protests and uprisings.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Iranian men use smartphones in Tehran. (AFP)
Iron curtain. Iranian men use smartphones in Tehran. (AFP)

As waves of anti-government protests swept over Iran on November 15, the Islamic Republic responded with a near-total internet and mobile data blackout within 24 hours after the breakout of unrest. Simultaneously, the regime actively promoted the country’s national intranet to fill the void in the absence of access to the internet.

Access to the internet was gradually restored since November 23 onward but what was the motive behind the internet blackout and how was the performance of Iran’s national intranet? Is the regime willing and capable of disconnecting Iran from the international internet in the future and solely relying on its national intranet?

Different regime officials explained the motive behind the internet blackout with varying degrees of honesty:

Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, minister of Information and Communications Technology, who was later sanctioned by the United States for his formal responsibility to the blackout, explained on November 20: “Abuse of the internet… made Iran’s Supreme National Security Council… impose certain restrictions in the international internet.”

Brigadier-General Ali Fadavi, deputy chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), speaking more freely about the motive, said in an interview on November 22: “On Friday, when the price of gasoline went up, villains were trying to establish a street-level presence, but they postponed to Saturday because of lack of preparedness. The internet, the instrument of the enemy, led to greater rioter presence at the street level.”

In an even more direct answer, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the Interior minister, explained in a November 26 interview: “As the unrest spread, we were compelled to partially disconnect the internet in certain areas. Initially we ordered it to be limited, but eventually reached the conclusion that it had to be disconnected.”

The regime not only enforced the internet blackout but also disconnected mobile phone antennas in areas affected by anti-regime protests. This tactic lived up to its intended goals: The protesters had difficulties further mobilising the public for their cause and coordinating their efforts.

The protesters also had to shift to Iranian text messaging systems, which the regime eavesdrops on, instead of more secure non-Iranian text messaging systems that were affected by the internet and mobile data blackout. The Law Enforcement Forces, Basij militias and IRGC, on the other hand, communicated through the wireless network.

Just as important, all television and radio channels of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting actively propagated the use of Iran’s national intranet in the absence of access to the international internet. Several features of the intranet appear to have worked well, in particular Iran’s banking sector.

After the protests, however, Azari Jahromi admitted that the performance of Iranian search engines and GPS-guided services was not entirely satisfactory. The minister, who earlier in his career used to emphasise “nothing will replace the internet,” now says: “The national intranet and the internet are both important.”

Other experts are even more positive in their assessment of the efficacy of Iran’s national intranet under recent protests and internet blackout. Mehdi Razmi, an information technology specialist, said that within 12 hours, food delivery companies, taxis and travel agencies, managed to continue their business by shifting to the national intranet.

Until the regime somehow manages to achieve sanctions relief from the United States, resumes its oil exports and allocates oil revenues to balance its budget and improve the lot of the public, it is likely to face recurrent protests and uprisings.

It is therefore just as likely that Iran will enforce an internet blackout and use the national intranet as an alternative.

More broadly, Tehran is likely to emulate China and redesign its entire internet infrastructure to be more like an intranet with access to select internet websites and services.

That, of course, does not solve the fundamental problem of recurrent anti-regime protests and uprisings, but it helps the regime suppress the protesters more effectively.