Monday, October 05, 2015

Conspiracy Theories Fly In Iran Over Deadly Hajj Incident

Iranian protestors demonstrate on September 25 in Tehran against Saudi Arabia after Iranians pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the annual hajj.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Tehran has said that negligence and mismanagement by Saudi organizers caused last week's hajj stampede that left at least 464 Iranians dead.

The Iranian losses were the largest incurred by any nationality in the deadly crush that took place in the Mina neighborhood of Mecca on September 24, the deadliest tragedy to befall the annual Muslim pilgrimage in 25 years.

And according to the head of Iran's paramilitary Basij force, there is one main culprit -- the United States. "The Americans are behind the Mina disaster. From their propaganda, we can understand that they're aiming at turning away people from the principle of hajj," Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi was quoted as saying by Iranian media on September 29. 

Naghdi, who has a record of blaming the United States for many of the world's problems, added that Washington wanted "to put hajj under question" and "give Islam an ugly face."

His claim is one of several conspiracy theories related to the tragedy that have been pushed by Iranian hard-line media and officials as Saudi Arabia investigates the deadly incident.

Iran says that it and other affected countries should have a role in the investigation. Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir has called on Tehran to wait for the results of the probe and avoid playing politics with a tragedy that has heightened tensions between the regional rivals.

The Saudi minister's request has done little to stem the flow of byzantine purported schemes that Iranian officials have posited in connection with the tragedy.

The deputy chief of staff of Iranian Brigadier General Massud Jazayeri suggested that the September 24 stampede and the deadly Mecca crane collapse on September 11 may have been deliberately orchestrated by Israel and the Saudi government.

"Given the oppressor Zionist regime's infiltration and influence on the Al-Saud, there is a growing possibility that the two incidents -- the crane-crash incident at the Grand Mosque [in Mecca] and the death of thousands of people in Mina -- were deliberate," Jazayeri told the semiofficial Fars news agency on September 28. 

Jazayeri said it's the duty of Muslim states to undertake fact-finding missions "to decode these crimes by Al-Saud."

Speaking on September 30 to the hard-line Tasnim news agency, Jazayeri said that the Mina incident had many "unclear and suspicious dimensions," adding that Iranian armed forces "are ready to conduct any mission in this regard."

He did not clarify what kind of action Iranian forces might take.

Saudi Kidnapping?

Iran's hajj organization said in a statement carried by state TV on October 1 that 464 Iranians had been confirmed dead as a result of the hajj stampede, and their bodies identified. The organization also said that the status of all injured had been "completely cleared and reported."

But a week after the tragedy, hundreds of Iranian pilgrims had remained unaccounted for, leading to speculation about their fate.

Among them was Iran's former envoy to Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, whose death was acknowledged by the Interior Ministry on October 1. But prior to the announcement, Roknabadi's undetermined situation had led some hard-line websites and officials to suggest he had been kidnapped.

Roknabadi's presence in Beirut when an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group carried out a 2013 suicide bombing targeting the Iranian Embassy fueled suspicions that he may have been targeted in Mina.

Culture Ministry spokesman Hossein Noushabadi was quoted by the hard-line Fars news agency as saying on September 29 that a plot by Saudi security forces to kidnap Roknabadi was a "serious possibility."

Iran's Foreign Ministry has denied a report by the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya news network that Roknabadi had traveled to Saudi Arabia under a fake name because there was no official record of his arrival in the kingdom to perform the hajj rituals. 

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said on September 28 that Roknabadi entered Saudi Arabia with his regular passport.

Other Iranian officials have cast doubt on conspiracy theories related to the stampede. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, dismissed claims that Roknabadi had been snatched as "unreal."

Shamkhani was responding to a question by Tasnim about "reports of the kidnapping of Roknabadi and some Iranian commanders" during the hajj incident. 

Shamkhani said some Arab governments had broken "the taboo of working with the Zionist regime," which, he said, was driving "doubts and suspicions" about whether some of the missing former Iranian officials were kidnapped.

Shamkhani added that the hajj incident was not "deliberate" and that it was likely the result of "incompetence and inefficiency."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that the Saudi government should accept responsibility for the incident and apologize to Muslims.

Iranian Hard-Liners Criticize Zarif's Handshake With Obama

The handshake between Barack Obama (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javif Zarif (right) was the first between a U.S. president and a senior Iranian official since 1979.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Hard-liners in Iran are criticizing a handshake and encounter between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that, according to a senior White House official, lasted less than one minute. 

The handshake, which occurred on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, was the first between a U.S. president and a senior Iranian official since 1979 when the U.S. cut ties with Iran over the hostage taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.

Iranian hard-liners said the gesture was a violation of the Iranian establishment's principles and a humiliation for Iran. 

"If Zarif has done such a thing, then he has definitely ignored the establishment's red lines," said Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy committee.  

"America remains Iran's enemy," he was quoted as saying by the hard-line Tasnim news agency affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. "Therefore, shaking hands with the enemy is contrary to the revolution's principles and against the nation's rights." 

The meeting between Obama and Zarif, described as unplanned by Iranian and U.S. officials, occurred in a UN hallway on September 28.

"The President and Foreign Minister Zarif had a chance encounter at the Secretary-General's luncheon, where they shook hands. The interaction was brief, lasting less than a minute," a senior U.S. administration official told the White House press pool. 

An official close to Iran's UN delegation told the semiofficial Iranian ISNA news agency that the two men briefly exchanged pleasantries after Iran's President Hassan Rohani spoke to the General Assembly. 

"Zarif was leaving the hall when he accidentally faced Obama and [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry, who were about to enter. They briefly greeted each other and the two shook hands," the unnamed official was quoted as saying. 

'Pact With The Devil'

The U.S.-educated Zarif led the Iranian team in the nuclear negotiations with the United States and other major world powers and has shaken hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly a number of times. 

Yet for some hard-liners who've been critical of the negotiations that led to the landmark nuclear agreement reached in July, the handshake with Obama appeared to be equivalent to a pact with the devil.

"Mr. Zarif, if you truly accidentally faced the Satan, why didn't you make a U-turn so that you wouldn't have to lay your hand on a hand that is stained with the blood of the people of Islamic Iran and other nations," lawmaker Hamid Rasayi asked in a post on Instagram alongside a picture of a handshake between a human hand and a red claw and long, black nails.

"What happened in New York was against [Iran's] national honor and statements by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei," said Hossein Ebrahim, who is a member of the conservative Society of the Combatant Clergy. 

He added that it wasn't dignified for the Iranian establishment to go after those "who throughout the history have committed the greatest injustices against us." 

There were also condemnations by groups affiliated with Iran's paramilitary Basij organization and hard-line sites and blogs that claimed Zarif had appeased the "Great Satan" and hurt Iran's authority. 

Earlier this year, Iranian hard-liners had similar objections to a 15-minute stroll Zarif took with Kerry in Geneva as part of the talks to reach a nuclear deal.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, has said the United States remains Iran's enemy despite the nuclear agreement. 

In his UN speech, Obama scolded Iranian hard-liners and said that "chanting 'death to America' does not create jobs or make Iran more secure."

Supreme Leader Revives Feared Intelligence Unit Of Iran's IRGC

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) appears to have revived an intelligence unit around the same time Hassan Rohani (right) became president in the summer of 2013.

Golnaz Esfandiari

When reports emerged earlier this month that prominent Iranian Internet entrepreneur Arash Zad had been arrested in August at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport, it was unknown who apprehended him, or why.
But suspicion has since fallen on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) intelligence arm, whose increased activities could indicate that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejuvenated the much-feared unit so he can gain greater control over the country.

The unit's resurgence appears to coincide with Hassan Rohani's ascension to the presidency in the summer of 2013, after which the relative moderate set about trying to live up to his campaign promises to give Iranians more freedoms and move away from his predecessor's heavy handed approach to dissent. 

That, observers say, potentially puts Rohani at odds with Khamenei, who as supreme leader has ultimate say in the Islamic republic. The IRGC's intelligence unit, which falls under the supreme leader's direct authority, could serve as a useful tool if Khamenei cannot fully trust the Intelligence Ministry to do as he wishes.

There is precedent for the supreme leader and the hard-line faction of the Iranian establishment to use the IRGC unit or others as a parallel intelligence apparatus -- Iran witnessed a surge in the operations of alternative intelligence bodies under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whose attempts at reform were blocked by hard-liners.

"The intensity of their [the IRGC intelligence unit's] activities and actions against domestic critics and activists depends on to what extent the Intelligence Ministry, which is controlled by the government, satisfies Khamenei," explains Virginia-based political analyst Ali Afshari.

The head of the Iran desk of the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Reza Moini, says his organization has recorded the arrest of more than 100 bloggers and Internet activists in Iran since August 2013, when Rohani took office.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who went on trial in August on espionage charges, and popular spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Taheri, who's been sentenced to death, are reportedly among the IRGC unit's recent targets. The unit, which controls a section in Tehran's Evin prison, was reportedly involved in the state crackdown that followed the 2009 mass antigovernment protests. 

"More than 89 percent of these [individuals] have been arrested by the intelligence unit of the IRGC in Tehran and other cities," Moini says. "They've faced unfair trials and sentenced to heavy prison sentences."

Identifying Threats

The unit's activities are seen as part of the IRGC's efforts to control the Internet, described by hard-line officials as a threat and a platform for Iranian "enemies" to influence the country.

In most cases, according to Moini, the IRGC has leveled "fabricated" charges against the individuals and sent them to jail. "The judiciary is not independent," he says. "The IRGC makes the decisions."

Khamenei has recently called on the IRGC's intelligence unit to monitor and identify threats, in what some observers see as a sign that the unit could further escalate its repressive measures in the months ahead.

The call followed warnings by Khamenei and other officials in recent weeks against the potential for "infiltration" by Iran's enemies emboldened by the prospect of closer relations and greater access to Iran after the recent accord on the country's contentious nuclear activities.

The supreme leader last week warned that "economic and security infiltration is not as important as intellectual, cultural, and political infiltration."

Khamenei called for vigilance and said that the IRGC, which is tasked with defending Iran against internal and external threats, has an important role to play.

"The intelligence branch of the IRGC must monitor all issues at all times and identify threats," Khamenei told IRGC commanders on September 16, according to a text of his speech posted on

Afshari, who was arrested and tortured by the IRGC's intelligence unit under President Khatami, is not surprised to see its revival as a parallel intelligence body.

"Under Rohani the Intelligence Ministry has been trying to distance itself from methods used under [former hard-line President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad," Afshari notes.

Fears Of A Clampdown

Providing some insight into the kinds of methods used by the unit, he recalls being beaten up, subjected to sleep deprivation, and forced to confess to crimes dictated by his interrogators.

"They wanted me to give them all the information I had about political forces and [confirm] their [prewritten] scenarios," Afshari recalls.

Aliasghar Ramezanpour, a London-based journalist who served as deputy culture minister under Khatami, says that the supreme leader appears now to be laying the groundwork to give the IRGC's intelligence unit more power.

"Khamenei is very clearly stressing the need for increased activities by IRGC's intelligence unit. I think [it means] that the unit will have a freer hand," said Ramezanpour.

In practice, he says, it could mean more arrests and allow the unit to create a more restrictive environment ahead of the 2016 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with electing and removing Iran's supreme leader.

Ramezanpour suggests the IRGC could work with the powerful Guardians Council to keep candidates whose views are deemed out of line with the clerical establishment from running.

After years of being repressed and sidelined, Iranian reformists are hoping to make a political comeback in next year's elections.

Hard-line officials, including members of the Guardians Council, have warned that "seditionists" -- a term used to describe members of the Green opposition movement that protested Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in 2009 -- will be prevented from winning seats.

Iranian Activists Call On Iran To End Support For Syria's Assad

Iranian mourners carry the coffins of three members of the Revolutionary Guards reportedly killed in Syria during their funeral in Tehran in June.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Scores of Iranian political activists and intellectuals have launched an online campaign calling on Iran to end its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and take in Syrian refugees fleeing violence there.

The more than 70 activists, who include several former political prisoners, blame Assad and his foreign supporters, including Tehran, for the exodus of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Europe.

They have launched a Facebook page called Sorry, Syria, where so far about two dozen users have expressed "shame" over Iran's assistance for Assad's "crimes" and warned that silence could be interpreted as consent. 

"We believe it is our main responsibility to denounce the destructive intervention of the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly, the Qods force, in the Syrian crisis," the activists said in a statement sent to RFE/RL, referring to the Quds Force, an elite wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

They also said that Iran should host some of the Syrian refugees "to alleviate a small part of the great pain that it has inflicted on the Syrian people."

Tehran's Support for Syria

More than 9 million Syrians have been displaced by the four-year conflict, 6.5 million of whom remain in the country and more than 3 million of whom have fled to immediately neighboring countries, according to the European Migration Policy Center

A spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Iran told RFE/RL that the agency was not aware of any Syrian refugees in Iran. "We haven't had any request for asylum [from Syrians] and Iran has not informed us of any asylum request," she said.

She added that the process of obtaining an Iranian visa had been fast-tracked for Syrian citizens who arrive at Iran's borders and that their visas could be renewed.

Speaking on September 21, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, blamed Western countries for the refugee crisis. "It is the result of Western help to terrorists," domestic media quoted him as saying.

Iran has been a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime, its only ally in the region. Iranian authorities have reportedly helped Assad remain in power through financial help and military advisers.

Some members of the IRGC have been killed in Syria in recent months, according to Iranian media, which said they had traveled to Syria voluntarily to defend a holy shrine and fight "terrorists" and the Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS). 

Will Tehran Give Up Assad?

The activists urge Iranian action to respect the basic rights of Syrians. "The Islamic republic must terminate all of its financial, military, and intelligence aid to the Assad regime and allow the formation of an interim government without Assad," the statement says.

The call is likely to be ignored in Iran, where crimes by Syrian government forces and the bombing of civilian targets go unreported by the tightly censored media.

Criticism of Tehran's support for Assad has been rare in Iran, and Iranian rights activists have also been largely silent about Iran's role in Syria, where the violence has killed more than 200,000 people.

The campaign condemning Iran's support for the Syrian government comes amid fresh expressions of support for Assad in Tehran.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on September 8 that "no one but Bashar al-Assad can save Syria from this situation."

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on September 7 said those who have demanded Assad's exit "in the past two years should be blamed for the continued war, and they should account for the bloodshed in the past few years."

The United States and other Western governments have insisted Assad must eventually go as part of any negotiated deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in June that his country will remain by the Assad regime's side "until the end of the road."

Assad said last month that he is confident of the continued support of allies Iran and Russia. 

Iranian Who Barred Soccer-Star Wife From Travel Says It's Private

Niloofar Ardalan during a practice session in Tehran in December 2014

Golnaz Esfandiari

An Iranian man who barred his soccer-star spouse from playing in a tournament abroad has defended his actions and criticized foreign media for covering the case.

Mehdi Toutounchi, a prominent sports journalist and television presenter, said he had to "take control" of the situation.

Toutounchi’s remarks may stoke further outrage after he prevented his wife, Niloufar Ardalan, from leaving Iran to compete the Asian Football Confederation women's championship in futsal in Malaysia.

Ardalan, known in Iran as Lady Goal, has said that her husband denied her permission to leave the country because he did not want her to miss their son’s first day of school on September 23.

The case has led to an outcry on social media, where many have sharply criticized Toutounchi’s decision and an Iranian law under which a married woman needs her husband’s consent to travel abroad. A man can also ensure his wife stays in the country by declining to sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport.

Niloufar ArdalanNiloufar Ardalan
Niloufar Ardalan
Niloufar Ardalan

Toutounchi was unapologetic.
“I really don’t like a family problem to become public,” he told the Iranian daily Ghanoon on September 17. "I feel in these cases, the man in the family has to take control."

Ardalan “was upset that she wasn’t traveling with the national team, she gave an interview. But I don’t like to talk to the media to solve the issue,” he said in brief remarks.

Ardalan is widely praised as one of Iran’s best female soccer players and has captained the national team in futsal, an indoor version in which each team fields five players.

Days after speaking to domestic media about her ordeal, Ardalan appears to have backed down.

In an interview with the Tasnim news agency, which is loyal to the hard-line conservative establishment in the Islamic country, she said that the issue is “private” and had been exploited by “antirevolutionary media,” a term used to refer to Persian-language media based outside Iran.

"I only described my problem and asked for a solution for it," she said. "It's no one else's business."

Those comments are likely to lead to concerns she faced pressure to change her tone.

Women's rights advocates have long called for reform or revocation of Iranian laws that discriminate against women, some of which were enforced only following the 1979 revolution, such as the travel law, which was introduced before it.

The Iranian website reacted to Toutounchi's comments by suggesting he was intervening on the side of Iran’s opponents in the September 21-26 tournament in Malaysia.

Toutounchi’s actions were far from a private matter because they will affect the fate of the Iranian team, said a commentary on the website, which focuses on women’s issues.

"By banning his wife from travel, Toutounchi managed to defeat [Iran’s] national team on behalf of all the players of the rival teams," it said.

Iranian Female Soccer Star Faces Husband-Imposed Travel Ban

Niloufar Ardalan has captained Iran's national team and was set to compete in the Asian Football Confederation's women's championship in futsal, an indoor version of soccer in which each team fields five players, to be held in the Malaysian town of Nilai on September 21-26.

Golnaz Esfandiari

It's a man's world for Niloufar Ardalan, one of Iran's best female soccer players and known as Lady Goal for her on-field exploits in international women's Islamic tournaments.

Ardalan says she will not be able to compete in an upcoming tournament in Malaysia because her husband has refused to grant her permission to travel abroad as required by Islamic laws enforced in Iran.

The 30-year-old athlete has captained Iran's national team and was set to compete in the Asian Football Confederation's women's championship in futsal, an indoor version of soccer in which each team fields five players, to be held in the Malaysian town of Nilai on September 21-26.

In Iran, however, married women need the consent of their husbands to leave the country and can be banned from traveling abroad if their spouses do not sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport.

Ardalan says her husband, a sports journalist and television presenter, has used this authority to prevent her from competing in the upcoming tournament because he does not want her to miss the first day of school for her 7-year-old son on September 23.

The frustrated soccer star says she had trained hard for weeks to compete in the games and make her country proud.

"But my husband didn't give me my passport so that I can [participate] in the games, and because of his opposition to my travel abroad, I [will] miss the matches," Ardalan said in a September 11 interview with the news site

In a September 12 interview with Shirzanan Global, a news portal that promotes participation in sports by female Muslims, Ardalan said that her passport had expired and that her husband had refused to sign a form required for its renewal.

The case highlights Iran's discriminatory laws that favor men, including in matters related to inheritance, divorce, and child custody, and effectively give women the status of second-class citizens.

Iranian men do not need permission from their wives to travel abroad.

"I wish authorities would create [measures] that would allow female athletes to defend their rights in such situations," Ardalan was quoted by as saying.

She added: "These games were very important to me. As a Muslim woman, I wanted to work for my country's flag to be raised [at the games], rather than traveling for leisure and fun."

There has not been any public comment from Ardalan's husband, Mehdi Toutounchi, who, according to Iranian media, has been supportive of women's soccer in the past.

Breaking The Silence

Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian women's rights advocate and the director of the London-based rights group Justice For Iran, says the case demonstrates the need to change the travel law, which she says affects tens of thousands of Iranian women.

"This just shows to what extent this law can impact a woman's life," Sadr said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL. "Even if a woman reaches the highest ranks in politics, sports, or culture, she still needs her husband's consent for one of her most basic rights -- traveling abroad."

Ardalan's case and her decision to go public about the travel ban have attracted considerable attention on social media, where many have condemned her husband's refusal to allow her to compete in the tournament.

"Is this the only way [Ardalan's husband] could prove he's a man?" one woman wrote in a Facebook discussion devoted to the issue.

"Many Iranian men pretend in cyberspace that they're defenders of women's rights. But in practice, and when it comes to the rights of their wives, they act more traditionally than previous generations," another woman wrote.

A man wrote: "This woman's husband must have his own reasons. We shouldn't make one-sided judgements."

Sadr welcomes the ongoing debate. She said Ardalan should be praised for publicly speaking about her plight. "She broke the silence, and this could lead to other women taking the courage to detail and shed light on other similar cases," she said.

Ardalan has said that she will pursue the case through women's rights groups.

"Boys have the issue of military service [which prevents those who have not completed their compulsory service from traveling abroad]. A solution is found for them, and something should be done for women as well," she said in an interview with the daily sports newspaper Goal.

She added, "What is the difference between us?"

Iran's Cyberpolice Call On Internet Giants To Prevent ‘Crime' Amid Telegram Concerns

Can Iranians be sure their online messages are not being read by the cyberpolice?

Golnaz Esfandiari

An Iranian cyberpolice official says the authorities have called on Internet giants like Google to cooperate with the government to prevent online crimes, a move that comes amid concerns that a renegade Russian tech mogul's messaging app may have caved in to Tehran's demands.

Hossein Ramezani, Iran's deputy cyberpolice chief for international affairs, told reporters this week that Tehran has asked Yahoo, Google, and the messaging app Telegram to "work with us in the prevention of criminal acts," the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported on September 2.

Iranian officials said earlier this year that the country could allow Internet giants to offer their services in the country if they respected Iran's "cultural rules and policies," and that the Islamic republic did not "tolerate" social-networking sites that allow the sharing of "immoral content." 

Iran maintains tough Internet censorship rules, blocking thousands of websites and monitoring the online activities of its citizens, including activists and critics of the establishment. Several activists say they have been interrogated, harassed, and sentenced to jail terms due to their online activities.

Requests for comment on their dealings with the Iranian government went unanswered by Yahoo, Google, and Telegram, a mobile messaging app popular in Iran that is backed by Pavel Durov, the enigmatic founder of Vkontakte, Russia's most popular social-networking site.

But Telegram "has not entered any agreements with any government on this planet. No plans to," Durov tweeted on September 5 in response to a question from the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders about whether Telegram has reached an agreement with Tehran and whether there are plans for moving some of Telegram's servers there. 

Washington-based Internet researcher Colin Anderson says U.S.-based Internet giants like Yahoo and Google are unlikely to comply with requests by the Iranian government, but that the situation is less clear with Telegram.

The messaging app in recent months has become popular among Iranians, who use it to communicate with each other and share content, including pornography and political satire.

Durov, who in the past has refused to comply with Russian authorities' requests to hand over Vkontakte user data about Kremlin critics, told Vice in June that Telegram had been "the most downloaded app in Iran for some time." 

Slippery Slope?

Nariman Gharib, a London-based Iranian Internet researcher, says that in recent weeks some of Telegram's features have been restricted in Iran, apparently in connection with demands by Iranian authorities.

Some tools on the app "have become inactive for Iranian users," and "some [pornography] bots have also become inactive," Gharib says. Most of the blocked features appear to deal with the sharing of pornography, but he says that the development has led to concerns that further restrictions could follow.

"Users are worried that the limitations could go beyond porn, meaning that if the Iranian government makes other demands, for example regarding users' information, Telegram [could comply] and jeopardize users' security," Gharib says.

"It's not clear how far [Telegram] is ready to go regarding its restrictions and censorship efforts," he adds.

Anderson shares the concern. "The opaque manner in which Telegram is behaving is concerning, particularly given that their service does not provide strong security assurances by default," Anderson says.

Durov said last year that he sold his 12 percent stake in Vkontakte amid pressure from Russian authorities, including requests to shut down a page on the networking site dedicated to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and turn over data about users tied to the 2014 Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally.

Durov has said that he refused to comply with the demands.

'Sensitive Political Issues'

Following reports of disruptions of access to Telegram in Iran, Deputy Communications Minister Mahmud Khosravi was quoted by the hard-line Tasnim news agency in July as saying that Iranian authorities had contacted Telegram.

"We sent an official letter to Telegram and told them your network has a problem in Iran. Let's sit and solve the problems," Khosravi was quoted as saying. 

Weeks later, Iranian Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi told the semiofficial Mehr news agency that Telegram officials had "apologized" to Iran over its "offensive" stickers.

"They said: 'We didn't know users in Iran misuse them,'" Vaezi quoted Telegram managers as saying. He added that the features had been blocked so that Telegram could keep a presence in Iran.

"I told them if the issue is not repeated, then [the ministry] will not prevent the activities of Telegram in Iran, and Telegram will not be blocked," Vaezi was quoted as saying. 

A pro-reform journalist in Tehran who requested anonymity says that he is worried about the reports. "The number of Telegram users has grown significantly because it is said to be secure for users, especially for people like us who discuss sensitive political issues," the journalist says via Telegram. "The reports suggesting that it is now complying with the [Iranian] government's demands are worrying."

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said last week that global Internet and technology companies should avoid putting Iranian users at risk by sharing their private information with the Iranian government.

The New York-based rights group called on Telegram to issue periodic transparency reports to assure Iranian users that their online data are safe.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

Guerrilla Translators

Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at