Iran’s Information Minister Is Not the Solution. He’s Part of the Problem.
Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has been a key player in the Iranian government’s campaign of repression and censorship.
Rohollah Faghihi’s recent article in Foreign Policy—“Is Iran’s Information Minister the Islamic Republic’s Emmanuel Macron?”—depicts Iran’s information and communications technology (ICT) minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, as an advocate of internet freedom, especially when it comes to accessing social media networks.
The article suggests that when Azari Jahromi is not able to counter hard-liners’ demands for censorship—for example, when the popular Telegram messaging app was banned—it was only because he faced powers greater than himself. This characterization overlooks Azari Jahromi’s record in office and contains significant omissions (all of which are in the public record) regarding his role advancing repressive internet censorship and surveillance in Iran.
The author states, “From 2002 to 2009, Azari Jahromi served in the Intelligence Ministry’s technical department, where he focused on cybersecurity and protecting digital infrastructure.” This is misleading; the author fails to mention the fact that during this period, cybersecurity in Iran consisted largely of the monitoring and tracking journalists, activists, and other citizens in order to identify and suppress dissent—and that this “technical department” developed domestic surveillance infrastructure in order to aid the Intelligence Ministry in this pursuit.
This period in Iran was characterized by violent state repression, which was facilitated by the state’s surveillance capabilities. In 2009, mass surveillance operations during the crackdown against Iranians who protested the disputed results of that year’s presidential election significantly aided the authorities’ ability to identify, track, arrest, and imprison peaceful protesters. Azari Jahromi’s own characterization of his activities during this period are in fact more accurate than the author’s. The semi-official Fars News Agency reported in August 2017 that during a session of the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee just prior to his confirmation, Azari Jahromi stated, “During my activities, I was not in charge of wiretapping but in charge of building the technical infrastructure industry for this purpose, and I’m proud of it.”
Moreover, Azari Jahromi’s role as an interrogator of arrested protesters during that 2009 crackdown, many of whom were sent to prison, is well documented. The Center for Human Rights in Iran interviewed some of the ex-prisoners who were personally interrogated by Azari Jahromi, and these interrogations have been confirmed by other journalists. In light of this history, during Azari Jahromi’s 2017 confirmation in parliament as ICT minister, the lawmaker Mohammad Ali Pourmokhtar warned, “My concern is we will turn the ICT Ministry into the Intelligence Ministry.”
The profile depicts Azari Jahromi as a champion of internet freedom, yet under the ICT minister, Iran has accelerated development of its now fully operational national internet (or “National Information Network”), which gives the government an expanded ability to block content, spread false information, access Iranian users’ online communications for covert surveillance, block access in Iran to the international internet, and facilitate state cyberattacks through the state’s information technology infrastructure. In particular, the scope and sophistication of state-sponsored cyberattacks against Iranian journalists, activists, and other members of civil society have significantly increased during Azari Jahromi’s time in office.
Internet censorship has also intensified under Azari Jahromi. It now targets not only content but also access to circumvention tools and encrypted apps, and Iran’s Telecommunication Infrastructure Company, which is under the control of Azari Jahromi’s ICT Ministry, is developing a new method of internet censorship that prevents access to blocked websites even with circumvention tools.
Azari Jahromi’s promotion of national tools and services such as messaging apps to replace foreign ones has increased Iranians’ vulnerability to covert state surveillance. For example, Azari Jahromi has promoted Telegram Talaeii, an Iranian version of the messaging app developed after the official Telegram app was banned in Iran. This app is hosted on the ICT Ministry’s infrastructure and is under the control of the ministry; as such, it is accessible to the authorities and easy to place under surveillance. This poses a great risk: The Iranian state’s online surveillance activities are well documented and proudly defended by the authorities, and they have sent Iranians to prison for posting online content critical of state policy. In 2018, Telegram issued a warning to users that the app was “unsafe.”
Intentional disruptions to the global internet for the purpose of repression have also taken place on Azari Jahromi’s watch. The widespread street protests in Iran between December 2017 and January 2018 were met with state-engineered internet disruptions, even as domestic services remained untouched.
During these events, the United Nations issued a statement by four U.N. special rapporteurs: “We are also very concerned at reports that the Government has blocked the internet on mobile networks, and that social media services like Instagram and messaging services like Telegram have been shut down in an attempt to quell the protests. In some regions, internet access has been blocked altogether.”
In June 2019, 90 percent of Iran’s internet service providers were again disrupted for unknown reasons. Azari Jahromi claimed these disruptions were caused by events outside Iran, but technical analysis by multiple experts and organizations suggested otherwise. The advocacy group Article 19 reported on the mass outages, noting that the disruptions were also “documented by NetBlocks, ArvanCloud, Oracle Internet Intelligence, RIPE and OpenDNS data” even as “reports indicated access to local platforms were generally easily available.”
Overall, internet freedom has not fared well under Azari Jahromi. The respected “Freedom on the Net 2018” report labeled Iran’s internet “not free” due to obstacles to access, limitations on content, and violations of users’ rights and ranked it 85, second only to China in online repression (with 100 being the worst score)—the same ranking the country received in 2017, when Azari Jahromi first assumed his position in August of that year.
While Iran’s ranking reflects many factors, a number of which Azari Jahromi does not control (for example, the arrest of Iranians for online content disapproved of by the government), Azari Jahromi’s record does not support the article’s depiction of him as an official who has expanded internet freedom in Iran. Under his watch, the country’s repressive online censorship and surveillance capabilities have increased.
Azari Jahromi has not been a passive bystander to these developments; he has contributed to them through the active promotion and implementation of measures and products that compromise internet access and security. Indeed, as the profile correctly notes “the [ICT] ministry has transformed into a serious economic, political, and technological force.” As such, Azari Jahromi and his ICT Ministry must share in responsibility for the significant and growing threat to internet freedom in Iran.