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In Response To Protests, Iran Cuts Off Internet Access, Blocks Apps

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).


That's the sound of protesters last night in the streets of Isfahan, one of the largest cities in Iran. They're using the name of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, and saying shame on you. Give up your rule. It was the sixth day of protests across Iran which have led to at least 22 deaths according to the state media. These are the biggest demonstrations since 2009. And there's a big difference between now and then.

Nine years ago, only about a million Iranians had a smartphone. Today, 48 million do. That's more than half of the population. Social media and messaging apps played a major role in sparking these protests. And as part of its crackdown against them, the government blocked several apps and in some places, cut off Internet access altogether. For more about these protests and how technology helped shape them, we're joined by Trita Parsi. He's president of the National Iranian American Council. And he's in our studio. Good morning.

TRITA PARSI: Good morning.

CHANG: So what are people doing online that is scaring the Iranian government?

PARSI: Well, they're communicating. And they're organizing. And news is spreading tremendously fast as a result of all of these mobile apps and all of these users of this technology. And they have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Iranian government for years now. Just a couple of days ago, they blocked Telegram which is one of the most popular apps that are used for communicating. And suddenly, I had a tremendous difficulty getting a hold of people in Iran, precisely because without that app, it just - it's much more difficult. And then...

CHANG: What makes Telegram so popular? How is it particularly equipped to maybe circumvent the...

PARSI: Well...

CHANG: ...Regime's attempts to censor or block?

PARSI: A, it's free...


PARSI: ...Which makes it much valuable because essentially you don't have to pay the cost of calling Iran and - particularly from there, and it's much cheaper. You send small voice messages to each other that goes over very, very fast. You can also talk on the phone if they have a good reception. And it's safe because it's protected and it's encrypted. So in many ways, it's really preferrable. And then just yesterday, I started getting messages again because people had found ways to get around the block on Telegram.

CHANG: How so?

PARSI: Various other apps that they're using that is actually breaking the block. So it's a cat-and-mouse game that is very difficult for the government to truly be able to win. That's part of the reason why they actually completely cut off the Internet at one point.

CHANG: Wow. Well, the U.S. has condemned the Iranian government for limiting Internet access. Here's State Department spokesman Heather Nauert addressing that issue yesterday.


HEATHER NAUERT: When a nation clamps down on social media or websites or Google or news sites, we ask the question, what are you afraid of? We support the Iranian people, and we support their voices being heard.

CHANG: How are messages like that from the U.S. being received in Iran?

PARSI: Well, the message may actually be something that people would agree with.

CHANG: Yeah.

PARSI: The problem is that the messenger is not someone that they tend to agree with.

CHANG: Right. Right.

PARSI: Right now, the Trump administration and President Trump himself is not a popular person in Iran. For the last year, he's been pursuing policies that the Iranian people, including clearly people who have very strong negative feelings towards the Iranian government - nevertheless, they found those policies very antagonistic against Iranian people. Take for instance the Muslim ban. This is something that has made it very difficult for Iranians to be able to visit their family here in the United States or be able to come and study here. Iranian nationals have been affected more by this than any other nationality 'cause it's the biggest group amongst those countries that are affected.

CHANG: Right.

PARSI: And it's quite insulting to a lot of people because he's targeting Iran and accusing all Iranians of being potential terrorists, but he's not doing anything about Saudi Arabia.

CHANG: So the show of support right now from President Trump is not exactly galvanizing to these protesters.

PARSI: Having Donald Trump's support is not a political-plus in the Iranian political context.

CHANG: I want to talk about differences you see between the protests in Iran in 2009 and these protests going on now. Besides access to the Internet - obviously, there's a huge difference there - what are some other important differences you see?

PARSI: There's a huge amount of differences. First of all, these protests in 2009 were much larger. We're talking about more than 2 million people on the streets of Tehran a couple of days after the fraudulent elections then. Now we're talking about a couple of thousand people, but it's much more widespread. And it's primarily in the smaller cities. It has kind of reached the big cities, but it's not really taking root there. It's actually happening in places that many people haven't even heard of. And part of the reason for that is because it's a completely different demographic of people that are protesting now.

2009, it was the educated. It was the middle class. It was the reformist, the green movement. I've been talking to some of the organizers of the green movement, and they're completely taken by surprise of this. They're on the sidelines. They had no idea this was coming. They were not part of this. And to a certain extent, they've even kept a calculated distance from these protests because they're not entirely clear of what the direction is going. Moreover, this specific demographic, much poorer, much less hopeful. And - in a way that one person described it to me - they feel they have absolutely nothing to lose.

They are also people who do not seem to buy in - perhaps, they're giving up or at least at this point - they're not buying in to the idea that you can change the system from within or that you can change it through reform. That's why you have these calls for the complete overthrow of the government. That's very different from the green movement. That was a reform movement that worked within the system - was obviously very, very much opposed to what was taking place, but they were not operating outside of it.

CHANG: That's Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. Thank you very much for coming in this morning.

PARSI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.