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Arrests Of Telegram Administrators Expose Divisions Among Iran's Hard-Liners


The intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps

Hard-liners have gained a foothold in Iranian politics during the past year, taking control of the presidency and parliament. But there has been mounting evidence of divisions in the political camp.

In the latest sign of an internal power struggle, authorities arrested the administrators of three hard-line Telegram channels believed to have links to the clerical establishment.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of the armed forces, said on June 15 that the three unnamed individuals were arrested and charged with publishing “classified documents” and “disturbing public opinion.”

The IRGC accused them of creating “discord” among officials by publishing “selective and false news.”

The three Telegram channels -- Semi-Confidential News, Secrets, and Shadow Writer -- were run by individuals believed to be pro-establishment. Each channel has several thousand followers.

Iranian authorities have blocked most social media websites and tools, including Telegram. But many Iranians continue to use the banned platforms.

The arrests came after several damaging, high-profile leaks that have exposed divisions among ruling hard-liners.

'Internal Score Settling'

Berlin-based Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi said the arrests appear to be a case of “internal score settling” within Iran’s hard-line faction.

“These individuals and channels are believed to have had special access and connections to [state] bodies,” Mehrabi, a former parliamentary reporter, told BBC Persian. “Therefore, their arrests can be seen as internal score settling and an attempt to stop the cyberconflicts between institutions affiliated with the IRGC and others.”

Lawmaker Malek Shahriati welcomed the arrests on Twitter, while expressing hope that the names of those behind the “dangerous circle” who spread “the germ of discord” among officials would be disclosed.

Some reports suggested that hard-line media activist Ali Gholhaki was among those arrested by the IRGC. Gholhaki has been accused of working with intelligence bodies to create cases against journalists and others.

Ali Gholhaki
Ali Gholhaki

In recent months, the Islamic republic has been rocked by several embarrassing leaks.

In February, RFE/RL’s Radio Farda obtained an audio recording in which officials can be heard discussing corruption investigations within the IRGC and Tehran's municipality under then-Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who is currently the speaker of the parliament.

Qalibaf was also the target of another damaging leak in April when images of his family’s reported shopping spree in Turkey were posted on social media, triggering widespread outrage at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet.

Qalibaf’s supporters claimed that the uproar had been orchestrated by fellow hard-liners who wanted to remove him from his powerful post. Details of the Qalibaf family’s trip to Turkey were revealed by Iranian activist Vahid Ashtari, who is reported to have ties with Saeed Jalili, an ultra-hard-liner who was Iran's top nuclear negotiator under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Last month, an audio recording was leaked in which hard-line cleric Mehdi Taeb, whose brother Hossein Taeb heads the IRGC’s intelligence branch, was heard saying that it was a relative of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who had disclosed the details of the Qalibaf family’s controversial trip to Turkey.

Taeb later said that his comments were taken out of context and posted on social media.

Later in May, the hard-line news site Rajanews accused the Semi-Confidential News Telegram channel of working to create a “crisis” among officials.

Rajanews said that the channel had attempted to link the uproar over the Qalibaf family's trip to Turkey to individuals close to the Iranian president in order to make the incident “a point of confrontation” between Raisi and Qalibaf.

Rajanews said that Iran’s intelligence bodies should pay closer attention to what he called “internal Amadnews,” a reference to a popular Telegram channel run by Ruhollah Zam.

Zam was executed in December 2020 after he was accused of inciting violence during Iran's 2017 protests. Media watchdogs blasted his trial as “grossly unfair.”

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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