Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced Wednesday that he would no longer use the hugely popular messaging app Telegram, while state TV said government agencies have been barred from using all foreign messaging apps.
Khamenei’s announcement came as rumors continued to circulate that Iran would soon block Telegram, built by Russian tech guru Pavel Durov, which has grown to become the most popular social media service in the country with some 40 million users — roughly half the population.
“In line with safeguarding national interests and removing the monopoly of the Telegram messaging network, the website for the preservation and publication of the works of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei will stop its activities in this network from this moment,” said the last message on Khamenei’s Telegram channel.
It directed users to accounts on Iranian messaging services, including Soroush and Gap, which the authorities are trying to promote.
There was no word on whether Khamenei’s office would stop using his five Twitter feeds in different languages, which exist despite the service being blocked for ordinary Iranians.
Facebook and Twitter are both blocked in Iran, although they are easily accessible using virtual private network (VPN) software.
The latest moves follow Sunday’s announcement by Iran’s education ministry that foreign social media networks were banned in schools. On Tuesday, a conservative lawmaker, Abolfazl Abutorabi, said “all foreign messaging services” could be banned as soon as Saturday, with Telegram first to go.
According to Iranian media reports, the ban on foreign messaging services in government was imposed Wednesday by the Presidential Office on all public institutions. It was not clear if the ban applied to civil servants outside of work hours. The report did not elaborate on penalties for violating the ban.
The ban on foreign services is linked to efforts by the regime to avoid a repeat of the protests that hit dozens of Iranian cities in December and January, many of which were organized via the apps.
Iranian authorities temporarily banned Telegram at the time, accusing it of allowing foreign-based “counter-revolutionary” groups to fuel unrest. Many continued to access it through proxies and VPN services.
The government of President Hassan Rouhani has pushed back against efforts to block Telegram and other popular services such as Instagram in the private sector, saying thousands of businesses use the service and access to the outside world should not be curtailed.
Last month, officials said Iran would block Telegram for reasons of national security in response to the protests, in which at least 25 people were killed and nearly 5,000 reportedly arrested.
Khamenei issued a statement last week saying any breaches of online privacy were haram, meaning they were religiously forbidden. This was interpreted as seeking to encourage the use of domestic apps, which many Iranians fear will be monitored by intelligence services.
Khamenei’s channel said his move away from Telegram was an initial step toward stopping its use by all “official bodies.”
The Iranian social networks Soroush and Gap claim to have some 5 million and over 1.3 million users, respectively.