The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday sanctioned Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s information and communications technology minister, for his role in a nearly weeklong nationwide internet shutdown.
Internet access in Iran was blocked Saturday following an announcement of fuel price hikes that led to protests across the country. More than 100 people were killed in an ensuing crackdown, Amnesty International said, though reports said the figure was difficult to confirm. Tehran began handing out cash stipends to the poor and orchestrating pro-government demonstrations to quell the protests.
“Iran’s leaders know that a free and open internet exposes their illegitimacy, so they seek to censor internet access to quell anti-regime protests,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that the protests had been put down, but Western media reports said it was difficult to verify the claim. The fuel hikes were said to be imposed by the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination, a body set up recently that gives four people -- the heads of the three branches of government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- the power to make the country’s most vital economic decisions, bypassing other government bodies.
Internet connectivity began trickling back Friday for Iran’s 80 million people, though it has not been fully restored. Tehran’s leader of Friday prayers called for the shutdown to continue indefinitely, according to a report by Small Media, a non-profit organization based in London that advocates for the free “flow of information in Iran and other closed societies.”
Experts told the Associated Press that the shutdown was the first to “effectively isolate a modern, highly developed domestic network,” marking a milestone in efforts by authoritarian governments to censor online communications. The Iranian government can throttle or block access because it controls the two principal gateways, known as exchanges, that connect the country to the global Internet, the AP reported.
United Nations human rights experts expressed grave concerns about the protests in Iran and the government’s response, including the Internet shutdown, saying it had a clear political purpose. “Such an illegitimate step deprives Iranians not only of a fundamental freedom but also basic access to essential services,” the U.N. human rights experts said.
The recent shutdown also follows similar patterns that occurred in 2017 and 2018, the Treasury said. Despite saying he supports expanded Internet access in Iran, Azari Jahromi has repeatedly justified the restrictive measures as necessary to maintain national security, saying they’re based on foreign threats to overthrow the Iranian government, the Treasury said.
Azari Jahromi was also involved in surveillance operations during the state crackdown on peaceful protests in 2009, the Treasury said. He has been the target of accusations that he personally interrogated activists at the time, according to the Treasury.
The Internet and social media are generally heavily censored in Iran and Azari Jahromi’s ministry has worked to block access to anti-filtering tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs), according to the Treasury. Azari Jahromi also played a role in launching Iran’s National Information Network (NIN), which enhanced the government’s ability to monitor, restrict and block Internet use in Iran, the Treasury said.
Azari Jahromi, when asked about the shutdown by Iranian media, said: “The internet has been cut off. The Supreme National Security Council has ordered the shutdown.”
Azari Jahromi is also a member of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, a body created in 2012 by Khamenei to centralize and oversee Iranian Internet policymaking and regulation, according to the council’s website. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace controls the National Cyberspace Center, which has prevented Iranians from accessing VPNs and Internet proxies, the Treasury said in January 2018 when imposing sanctions on the two bodies.
“No country or company should enable the [Iranian] regime’s censorship or human rights abuses. The United States will always support access to information, freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and will continue to promote accountability for those who unduly restrict these freedoms,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement.