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Iran Leader Said Eyeing Ways To Muzzle 'Mad Dog' Internet

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met recently with "cyberspace experts" to discuss challenges that the Internet poses to Iran's leadership, the head of the powerful Guardians Council said.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati did not specify when Khamenei's meeting took place, but many Iranian officials have blamed social media for fomenting unrest that erupted in December and January before curbs on mobile networks and apps and thousands of arrests helped authorities put down street protests in dozens of cities.

In remarks published on January 26 by the hard-line Tasnim news agency, which has links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Jannati went on to describe the Internet as a "pain in the neck" for Iran, whose authorities routinely block news and information websites and social media in addition to foreign television and radio broadcasts.

The Guardians Council that the 91-year-old Jannati chairs has broad powers to interpret the constitution and vet legislation and candidates for office.

Jannati warned vaguely that measures "should be taken" in connection with the threat from cyberspace.

"I'm not saying it has to be fully blocked," Jannati added, "That's impossible. But we have to reduce it."

He cited Chinese and Japanese efforts to rein in access to the Internet, although it was not immediately clear what steps in Japan he was referring to.

Iranian officials in the past have explored options ranging from a system to steer local IP addresses to a domestic Internet -- dubbed a "National Data Network" -- to routine blocks on messaging apps and other digital tools.

But such tactics have left Iranians relatively savvy in the ways of avoiding web filters.

Provisional Friday Prayers leader in Tehran Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said on January 26 that the recent protests were led by "cyberspace seditionists."

"Cyberspace as a platform for foreigners is a mad dog," he said, adding, "If left alone, it will bite again."

Iran temporarily blocked Telegram and the photo sharing app Instagram in the early days of the protests, which Khamenei blamed on "foreign enemies."

Hundreds of Iranians are still believed to be in detention over the protests, which were the country's biggest since millions of people took to the streets after a disputed presidential election in 2009.

The United States on January 12 announced new, targeted sanctions on 14 Iranian individuals and organizations for "serious human rights abuses," censorship, and nonnuclear weapons issues, a Treasury Department spokesperson said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, irinews, and ISNA