Silencing the right will be followed by silencing the left
Yassamine Mather looks behind the social media bans imposed in the name of ‘democracy’
Last week if you tried to access the Instagram accounts that are supposed to belong to top figures of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, you would have seen the message: “Sorry, this page is not available”. This was only a day after Donald Trump labelled the IRGC a “foreign terrorist organisation” and a day before both Instagram and Facebook banned some British far-right groups and individuals.
When the social media outlets were asked about the ban on Iranian groups, the reply was clear: “We work with appropriate government authorities to ensure we meet our legal obligations, including those relating to the recent designation of the IRGC.”
The list of banned pages included those of IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, major-general Qasem Soleimani (who only a couple of years ago was praised by some in the US media for his role in fighting Islamic State), Iran’s former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, as well as the English-language version of the supreme leader’s official website on Instagram. The last three were later reinstated because, as always with White House directives right now, chaos and incompetence lead the way.
Although most Iranian users would not be able to access Facebook and Twitter in any case, both sites are officially banned. However, Instagram is available and it is by far the most popular social media outlet in Iran, with some 24 million users. Many of these have reacted strongly, even though the Revolutionary Guards are not a popular force in Iran. This is not just because of their repressive character, but more importantly because the group’s leaders and their immediate relatives are beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism and amongst Iran’s rich elites. They own 20%-30% of Iran’s ‘privatised’ capital, and they are hated as employers and exploiters of the working class. However, in the last few weeks lower-ranking members of the guards have been praised by Iranian Instagram users for their involvement in flood relief across the country.
And the Instagram ban has - in Iran, as elsewhere - started a debate about the independence of social media and the west’s claims of upholding freedom of expression. Rightwing pro-censorship forces celebrated the ban with the hard-line paper Javan renaming Instagram “Insta-Trump”. But ‘reformist’ bloggers took a different attitude. Information minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi used his own Instagram account to post a Game of thrones quote criticising Instagram’s decision: “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you aren’t proving him a liar. You’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”
Accusations that Instagram is practising double standards and advancing a particular political agenda gained further momentum when the ban targeted non-IRGC figures, among them chief justice Ebrahim Raissi, who lost the 2017 presidential elections to Hassan Rouhani.
Given the fact that many Salafi groups and their Saudi and United Arab Emirates supporters are allowed to show horrific images on social media and they remain exempt from such bans, many Iranians - who day in day out are told the US is concerned about their ‘human rights’ and democracy - found the whole episode quite disturbing.
All this was followed by the Trump administration’s announcement that all countries importing Iranian oil will be subject to US sanctions. In other words, Donald Trump had decided not to reissue waivers regarding sanctions against countries importing Iranian oil when they expire on May 2. According to the White House, “This decision is intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero, denying the regime its principal source of revenue.” Secretary of state Mike Pompeo stated:
How long the exports remain at zero depends solely on the … Iran’s senior leaders. We have made our demands very clear to the ayatollah and his cronies: end your pursuit of nuclear weapons, stop testing and proliferating ballistic missiles, stop sponsoring and committing terrorism, halt the arbitrary detention of US citizens. Our pressure is aimed at ending these and others and it will continue to accelerate until Iran is willing to address them at the negotiating table.1
However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have agreed to “ensure an appropriate supply” in order to make up for the loss of Iranian oil on the global market.
It so happened that it was the very next day that Facebook banned a host of far-right individuals and organisations in the UK, accusing them of “spreading hate”. The list included Facebook and Instagram pages associated with the British National Party, the English Defence League, the National Front, Britain First and the militant Christian group, Knights Templar International. Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party, and Jack Renshaw, a far-right activist jailed in June for plotting to murder Labour MP Rosie Cooper, were also banned.
Many on the left rushed to celebrate these bans, but clearly such a reaction is ill-considered. Leave aside the fact that many associated with the current US administration have close relations with British and European far-right groups. For instance, Trump’s former advisor, Steve Bannon, has invited Marine Le Pen’s far-right party to join his populist project.2 And last year The Guardian commented that Bannon was visiting Europe to encourage a “national populist revolt”.3
However, the point is that the UK ban represents a dangerous attack on freedom of expression by the ‘moderators’ of social media groups working with the British government. The fact that at this time it is the right that has been targeted is irrelevant. Jacob Rees-Mogg pointed out that it is not just the far right which has been accused of ‘hate speech’ - what about Momentum and its “anti-Semitism”, he asked.
In fact the government is planning to impose new social media controls on what it calls material deemed to be “harmful, but not necessarily illegal”. The white paper issued by home secretary Sajid Javid and culture and media secretary Jeremy Wright does not make it clear who will decide that a particular item is “harmful” or how such a decision will be made, while its assurances about ‘freedom of expression’ are deliberately vague. The regulations would cover not just social media, but independent websites. In other words, far from celebrating the current restrictions and bans, we should forcefully oppose them.
The Iranian bans and the subsequent additional economic penalties also have sinister aims. As I have pointed out, an embattled US president, facing a Democratic-led Congress continuing to question his conduct after the Mueller report, would be happy to divert attention from his own behaviour through a war in the Middle East: for example, one that aims to impose regime change in Tehran.
US national security advisor John Bolton has warned: “The Iranian regime should understand that it must change its behaviour now or continue to pay the cost for its destabilising behaviour, which only hurts the Iranian people.”4 Here at least there is an admission of sorts: sanctions hurt ordinary Iranians! However, even after the disastrous failures of US policy in Iraq, Libya and Syria, Washington has not learned the dangers of promoting regime change.
President Rouhani’s response to these threats came on April 24, when he summed up the current Iranian government attitude towards negotiations with the US: if a thug wielding a knife invites you to discuss future relations over a coffee, you would be stupid to accept. He added: “The US is not ready to hold negotiations at all and its measures are aimed at breaking up the Iranian nation.”
In this he is right - although, of course, Tehran has been more than willing to negotiate and cooperate with successive US administrations since the establishment of the Shia republic 40 years ago. I am not going to detail the initial contacts that led to the Irangate scandal, but it is worthwhile summarising the history of relations between the IRGC and the United States, as explained in Farsi by Hossein Bastani of BBC Persian.5
One of the most important examples of this cooperation was the help provided by the IRGC in 2001 in the US war against the Taliban, who at the time controlled Kabul and most of Afghanistan. A recent BBC documentary showed what occurred.6 In it Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, amongst others, describes secret talks with a representative of the Revolutionary Guards. According to Crocker, the discussion took an unusual turn when he was presented with a map covering all of Afghanistan showing Taliban positions, with recommendations on specific targets. In the end, when Crocker asked if he could take notes about the map, his Iranian counterpart said he could keep the map!
Another BBC documentary recalled meetings between the two sides in New York and Geneva about the invasion of Afghanistan. An IRGC representative showed the US delegation precise Taliban targets in northern Afghanistan and this was used in US air raids attacking Taliban strongholds. In Hossein Bastani’s article there are also references to Iran and Hezbollah supporting Bosnian forces in cooperation with US military plans.
Then there is Iraq. In 2007, when Ryan Crocker was the US ambassador to Iraq, he had talks with Hassan Kazemi Qomi, his Iranian equivalent. This was admitted by supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who at the time said he had “no objection to direct talks with the US in order to avoid chaos in Iraq”. There are many recollections of these talks, which demonstrate how Tehran, eager to support fellow Shias, was cooperating with the US following the invasion of Iraq.
Finally there is the recent cooperation in Iraq and Syria between the Revolutionary Guards and what is loosely called the US coalition against IS. The IRGC hardly comes out of all of this as a radical, anti-US organisation, as the Trump administration is eager to portray it.
In this context we can understand the frustration felt by Tehran. We are not just talking about social media bans and severe sanctions. Plans for ‘regime change from above’ are now well underway.