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Iran’s Rouhani in tug of war with hard-liners over internet bans

The Iranian president attacked the hard-line judiciary’s move to summon his telecommunications minister over ambitious internet access improvement plans.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani locked horns with his powerful hard-line rivals by throwing his full weight behind young Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, who has been pushing fundamental internet development projects. 

Jahromi was summoned last week by a Tehran court for an investigation into a host of accusations, including his “failure to implement judicial orders on banning the social media platform, Instagram.” Jahromi was released only after committing himself to attending the next stages of the proceedings.

Addressing a Cabinet meeting in Tehran on Jan. 27, Rouhani fiercely criticized the judiciary over the case. “Nobody should be put to trial over expanding the internet bandwidth,” Rouhani said. He even challenged the judiciary by declaring that if there was anyone to be investigated, it would be the president, who issued the directive on the bandwidth improvement.

Rouhani did not detail the technical aspects of the project, but he praised his young minister for “the great job” that he said will help in such areas as customs controls, thus boosting the “fight against corruption.”

In 2018, Jahromi blew the whistle on powerful financial empires who had allegedly pocketed millions of dollars by misusing government subsidies granted to cell phone imports. Ever since, the minister has been attempting to project the image of an avant-garde, anti-corruption hero. His relentless support to help open up space on Iran’s typically restricted social media has also kept him under the spotlight.

The list of filtered platforms in Iran currently includes Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The latest addition is the messaging app Signal, which became unavailable to users inside Iran on Monday.

While admitting that he holds nearly no authority to lift those bans, Jahromi has managed to keep Instagram up and running. But in that struggle, the minister has been relentlessly chased by the prosecutor-general. And to Jahromi’s dismay, the conservative parliament is also in the middle of an intense attempt to pass legislation on banning Instagram, which hosts nearly half of the country’s population.

The partisan nature of the tug of war over Iran’s internet management was highlighted by government spokesman Ali Rabiee, who described the minister’s brief interrogation as “not simply a judicial or administrative process.”

Rabiee suggested that the decision was rooted in the judiciary’s political rifts with the administration regarding governance, religion and culture. He also warned that a ban on Instagram would result in “an exodus” of more than 1 million people who are earning a living through small businesses on the platform.