Iran accused of throttling internet to keep lid on water protests

Watchdog says blackout only affecting access to web on cell phones so far, though move ‘consistent with a regional internet shutdown intended to control protests’

An Iranian man walks past a shuttered store in the capital Tehran, on July 20, 2021. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
An Iranian man walks past a shuttered store in the capital Tehran, on July 20, 2021. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Mobile phone internet service in Iran is being disrupted a week into protests in the country’s southwest over water shortages that has left at least three people dead, a monitoring group said Thursday.

Internet-access advocacy group attributed part of the disruption to “state information controls or targeted internet shutdowns.” It identified the outages as beginning July 15, when the protests began in Khuzestan amid a drought affecting the oil-rich region neighboring Iraq.

While landline service continues, NetBlocks warned its analysis and user reports were “consistent with a regional internet shutdown intended to control protests.”

The effects represents “a near-total internet shutdown that is likely to limit the public’s ability to express political discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world,” NetBlocks said.

There was no acknowledgement of an internet shutdown in Iranian state media. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Activist groups abroad have described internet disruptions in the region in recent days as well. Since the country’s 2009 disputed presidential election and Green Movement protests, Iran has tightened its control over the internet.

Tehran deployed a complete shutdown of the nation’s internet in November 2019 during protests over gasoline prices. That both limits demonstrators’ ability to communicate with each other, as well as the spread of videos of the protests with the wider world.

Illustrative: People walk past buildings that were burned during recent protests, in Shahriar, Iran, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran, November 20, 2019. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Protests took place across eight cities and towns in Khuzestan into the early hours of Thursday, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Security forces fired tear gas, water cannons and clashed with demonstrators, the group said.

Iranian state media have reported the killing of a police officer and two others amid the protests, highlighting videos it alleged showed demonstrators with firearms. However, Iran has in the past blamed protesters for deaths occurring amid heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists that Washington was following closely reports that Iranian security forces fired on protesters.

“We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves …. without fear of violence, without fear of arbitrary detention by security forces,” Price said.

Water worries in the past have sent angry demonstrators into the streets in Iran. The country has faced rolling blackouts for weeks now, in part over what authorities describe as a severe drought. Precipitation had decreased by almost 50% in the last year, leaving dams with dwindling water supplies.

The protests in Khuzestan come as Iran struggles through repeated waves of infections in the coronavirus pandemic and as thousands of workers in its oil industry have launched strikes for better wages and conditions.

Iran’s economy also has struggled under US sanctions since then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, crashing the value of the Islamic Republic’s currency, the rial.

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