Iran blocks Instagram, Telegram apps as government protesters will ‘pay the price’ for unrest

Iran on Sunday blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram, official media reported, after three days of anti-government unrest spread across the country. Two demonstrators were killed over the weekend, an official said.

The move was aimed at blunting the largest protests in Iran since a 2009 uprising over disputed election results, and that appear to have caught Iran’s leadership off guard.

Authorities were “temporarily” blocking the social media apps, both of which are popular with Iranians, to “maintain peace” amid the growing demonstrations, state television said Sunday. Many demonstrators had used the apps to share and upload videos from the protests.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter that Iran was “blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down . . . peacefully protesting channels.”

Iran’s government warned protesters after a night of attacks on government buildings and confrontations with police that they would pay a “heavy price” for breaking the law. Authorities there have a history of brutally repressing unauthorized protests and political dissent.

Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017. (Stringer/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

“Those who damage public property and create disorder are accountable before the law and must pay the price,” Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahman Fazli said Sunday, state media also reported.

An official in western Iran confirmed the deaths of two demonstrators who protesters said had been shot and killed. The official deputy-governor of Lorestan province, Habibollah Khojastehpour suggested they had been shot either by “foreign agents” or Sunni militants he claimed infiltrated the area.

“No bullets were shot from police and security forces at the people,” Khojastehpour said on state television Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

President Trump on Sunday also commented on the unrest, saying on Twitter that the “USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”

The demonstrations began Thursday over economic woes but swiftly expanded to target a system many protesters have said is corrupt and incapable of reform. In stunning scenes, protesters were seen changing “down with the dictator!” as they tore down posters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in central Tehran.

Protesters Saturday defied police from Kermanshah in the west to the holy city of Qom in the north and Ahvaz southwest of the capital, according to footage circulated online. Some of those images could not be confirmed.

“Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism,” Trump said Sunday. “Looks like they will not take it any longer.”

But Rouhani, a moderate who appealed to reformists and reelected to a second term in a landslide in May, had yet to address the nation. And reports in local media that he planned to give a speech Sunday were quickly denied.

Both reformists and conservatives struggled to respond to the demonstrations with a unified message. Each side has blamed the other, while internally the camps were split over the legitimacy of the protests.

Allies of Rouhani, including his reformist vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, initially suggested his political opponents had orchestrated the demonstrations. But as the protests escalated, and many chanted for the return of Iran’s monarchy, many conservatives soon disavowed the protesters and have called for a tougher response.

Rouhani has come under fire for failing to deliver on key economic promises he said would follow a nuclear deal with world powers, after which international sanctions on Iran were lifted.

The economy has indeed grown, and the International Monetary Fund has forecasted real GDP growth to reach 4.2 percent in 2017/18. But that boost has largely been due to renewed oil exports, and non-oil sector growth has lagged significantly behind.

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