Top Iranian government officials were suspended from Facebook-owned Instagram just hours after Trump dubbed the IRGC a “terrorist” organization.
By Ben Norton
A curious decision by Instagram, which is owned by social media giant Facebook, has called into question its independence from the US government. The company has banned several top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, from its photo-sharing platform.
This disappearance of foreign government officials by American tech corporations is the latest episode in a global information war.
On April 15, the administration of President Donald Trump designated Iran’s military wing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist” organization. Less than a day later, Instagram suspended the accounts of several Iranian officials, from military commanders to politicians with no ties to the IRGC.
Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani was among those banned. (Soleimani drew public attention in November for using his Instagram account to comically respond to Trump’s threat of sanctions with a Game of Thrones-style meme.) IRGC commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari also saw his Instagram account suspended, as did Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour.
Instagram additionally banned Iranian officials with no connection to the IRGC, including Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former mayor of capital Tehran, who has not worked for the IRGC for nearly two decades. It even removed the page of Ezzatollah Zarghami, a former government minister and ex-director of Iran’s state media broadcaster; and the chief of Iran’s police, Kamal Hadianfar.
The news site Al-Monitor reported, “Accusations that Instagram is practicing double standards and advancing a political agenda gained further momentum when the ban targeted non-IRGC figures, among them Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who lost the 2017 presidential race to Hassan Rouhani.”
IRGC Instagram accounts were popular among Iranians, particularly during the recent floods that saw several cities plunged into crisis. Al-Monitor noted, “Many Instagram users have praised the IRGC’s ongoing involvement in flood relief across Iran.”
A pro-government newspaper, Javan, responded to the suspensions by sarcastically dubbing the social media company “Insta-Trump,” Al-Monitor reported.
Instagram: “We work with the appropriate government authorities”
This wave of censorship bolsters journalist Yasha Levine‘s argument that US tech corporations act as “privatized instruments of American geopolitical power.”
Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, condemned the Instagram censorship, tweeting, “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.”
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
وقتی دهان یک مرد را میبندی،دروغگو بودنش رو ثابت نمیکنی،بلکه فقط به دنیا میگی از چیزی که او ممکنه بگه میترسی#GameOfThrones #TheRegionRemembers https://t.co/B6XeynRdnp
— MJ Azari Jahromi (@azarijahromi) April 16, 2019
An Instagram spokesperson told the US government-funded Voice of America (VOA) that the bans were done to abide by “the constraints of U.S. sanctions laws.” The spokesperson added, “We work with the appropriate government authorities to ensure we meet our legal obligations, including those relating to the recent designation of the IRGC.”
Instagram did not however explain why it also suspended the accounts of Iranian officials who do not work with the IRGC.
This is not the first time American social media corporations have banned Iranians. In August, The Grayzone reported on Twitter’s suspension of an Iranian student journalist, Sayed Mousavi, who did not work for the government, and was censored as part of a larger coordinated crackdown by Twitter, Google (which owns YouTube), and Facebook (which owns Instagram).
“What worries me is that, I was just a student doing my bit of what I can do to journalism to counter just a little bit of the huge amount of disinformation being put about my country,” Mousavi told The Grayzone at the time.
He added, “It’s really a burden upon us, different anti-Zionist, different anti-imperialist groups, to make our voices heard. We need to diversify our platforms.”
Israel, Saudi media, MEK, US neocons gloat after Instagram suspensions
The Israeli government gloated after Instagram’s ban of the top Iranian officials. On its official Persian-language account, Israel cited a proverb that roughly translates to, “You reap what you sow,” adding #TerroristGuardCorps.
اینستاگرم صفحه رسمی قاسم سلیمانی را بست.
چیزی که عوض داره گله نداره… #سپاه_تروریستی_پاسداران pic.twitter.com/5NMQl0TFku
— اسرائیل به فارسی (@IsraelPersian) April 16, 2019
Numerous anti-Iran media outlets, including Saudi state propaganda and pro-Israel websites, also happily reported on the temporary suspension of the English-language Instagram account of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei on April 16. (Khamenei’s profile was restored after the short ban. The accounts of the IRGC commanders and other politicians remain suspended.)
Israel’s right-wing Jerusalem Post newspaper drew an explicit connection between the censorship and Trump’s “terrorist” designation.
Is it intentional or a coincidence that #Instagram decided to suspend Ayatollah Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani's accounts one day after the U.S. designated the IRGC a #terrorist organization?https://t.co/XcRjTreC7G
— The Jerusalem Post (@Jerusalem_Post) April 17, 2019
VOA, the US government outlet, boasted in a report, “With 800,000 followers, the Instagram page of the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force was among the most popular pages of Iranian officials on the photo-sharing website.”
The American front group for the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a US-backed violent cult that has spent decades trying to overthrow the Iranian government, also praised Instagram’s censorship.
#Instagram Takes Down #Iran Regime's Leader and #IRGC Accounts After US Terror Designation
Social media site Instagram blocked the IRGC commanders and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday in order to comply with US sanctions on Iran.https://t.co/5gQbZBUqlM
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) April 17, 2019
For years, the MEK was listed as a US-designated terrorist organization, until the State Department of Secretary Hillary Clinton formally removed the label in 2012.
Today, the MEK operates freely on social media, running numerous accounts for several front groups. Al Jazeera revealed that the cult even oversees a massive troll farm in Albania.
.@instagram on Tuesday blocked the account of #Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, and several Iran's #IRGCTerrorists commanders.#BlackListMOIS#BlackListIRGC https://t.co/wO6P6qXkp1 pic.twitter.com/VyBWRkm8JW
— Iran Freedom (@4FreedominIran) April 17, 2019
Opposition outlet Iran International TV, which is funded by sources closely linked to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was among the sites that celebrated the banning of Khamenei’s senior adviser Ali Akbar Velayati.
Instagram deleted the account of Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to the leader of the Islamic Republic. The Persian account of the leader Ali Khamenei, and the accounts of many #IRGC commanders and the chief of the judiciary.#Instagram https://t.co/J9o4mCn1Kk pic.twitter.com/pSV5hfOf5S
— Iran International English (@IranIntl_En) April 17, 2019
The neoconservative anti-Iran lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) was delighted to see the suspensions as well.
Yesterday, Instagram suspended accounts of at least three commanders of the FTO designated IRGC. Surpeme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s English account was also suspended, but has sense reappeared. https://t.co/5WWl8aglFp
— UANI (@UANI) April 17, 2019
Instagram’s censorship inspired a campaign by anti-Iran groups to pressure Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to ban more Iranian officials. Opposition figures have pushed the #TwitterBan4IRGC hashtag, and have particularly targeted Iran’s prominent foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
Alireza Nader, a US government-linked opposition activist and head of the DC-based opposition group New Iran, called on Twitter to ban Zarif.
.@JZarif is a close collaborator of Qassem Soleimani, designated as a terrorist by the US. Shouldn’t @JZarif’s @Twitter account be suspended @jack? @instagram banned Soleimani & other Guards. @JZarif should be treated the same. pic.twitter.com/UnH0bR3Bcx
— Alireza Nader علیرضا نادر (@AlirezaNader) April 18, 2019