[Updated 26/7] Shutdown Monitor: Local Internet Disruptions Target Escalating Water Protests in Khuzestan

As Khuzestan's inhabitants take to the streets to protest chronic water shortages, authorities are using hyper-local network disruptions to try to contain the unrest.

[Update: Monday 26 July] 

Over the past few days, the protests in Khuzestan have continued to spread to other parts of Iran, including the cities of Aligudarz in Lorestan, Tabriz in Eastern Azerbaijan, and Bojnourd in North Khorasan, among others. 

On 26 July, protests also erupted in the capital city of Tehran in support of the protests in Khuzestan, as well as in response to ongoing electricity outages in the capital. In videos from Tehran shared on social media, anti-government chants can be heard. 

Protests in Tabriz, Aligudarz, and across Khuzestan have reported heavy security presence and clashes between protesters and security forces. According to an analysis from Amnesty International, Iranian authorities have deployed “unlawful force” by using automatic weapons and live ammunition against unarmed protestors in Khuzestan. So far at least five people have been confirmed to have been killed, with dozens more injured and over a hundred people arrested according to the Human Rights News Agency (HRANA). These figures are likely to rise further as more information becomes available

Internet disruptions continue in regions where protests are taking place, including early reports of internet disruptions from users in Tehran. Internet disruptions are currently most pronounced in Khuzestan, where access to the global internet is being either heavily disrupted or completely disconnected. However, domestic services remain accessible via the National Information Network. According to the cybersecurity and digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi, disruptions to WhatsApp have also limited users’ ability to send and receive audio and video files. 

Meanwhile, state media continues to claim that the water shortages in Khuzestan are “being addressed”. The freelance journalist Hossein Dalirian travelled to Khuzestan and has been sharing his reports via Twitter, which is otherwise blocked for Iranian users. In a tweet on 22 July he claimed that the internet in the city of Ahvaz is “connected and does not have any problems.” It is likely that Dalirain has unrestricted internet access – a privilege which is granted by Iranian authorities to certain journalists. It has also been pointed out by other Twitter users that Dalirian was able to freely use Twitter during the November 2019 nationwide internet shutdown. 

Despite authorities’ continued denial of internet disruptions, in an interview on 24 July with the newspaper Payam-e-Ma, the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI)’s Head of Communications for Khuzestan Province, Hamid-Reza Jalili, claimed that the internet disruptions in Khuzestan are “due to a technical equipment fault” and that “it is unclear when this will be resolved”. 

[Update: Wednesday July 21]

The evening of 21 July marked a full week since the start of the protests in Khuzestan province. As protestors took to the streets for a seventh consecutive evening, reports emerged of solidarity protests taking place in the neighbouring province of Isfahan. Protestors continued to face crackdowns from security forces, with reports of Iranian authorities using tear gas and force to dispel crowds in both provinces. In recent footage from protests in Khuzestan on 21 July, gunshots can also be heard, with videos showing shots being fired towards protesters. 

That night, mobile data was cut off in the cities of Khorramshahr, Abadan, Ahvaz and Izeh in Khuzestan, and Gachsaran in the neighbouring province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad. According to a number of social media users, internet connectivity is intermittent and throttling is making it especially difficult for users to share videos and real-time information online. Iranian authorities have not formally acknowledged or taken responsibility for the internet disruptions during the protests. 

On 20 July, a statement from Khuzestan’s Prosecutor’s Office warned that “rioters, separatists, anti-government and counter-revolutionaries” who are “causing unrest and disrupting public opinion” will be “prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” 

Evidence Emerges of Apparent State Information Operations Via State Media & Social Media Platforms

The state broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) published reports claiming that “around 50” Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) water tankers were en route to Khuzestan. At the same time, the Twitter hashtag «خبر_خوب_خوزستان» (or “Khuzestan’s good news”) began trending in Iran. 

The IRGC-affiliated news agency Fars News published a report claiming that social media users had been sharing “news and images of water reaching the province under the hashtag.” A number of Twitter accounts have used the hashtag in both English and Persian – in what appears to be a coordinated campaign – to disseminate misinformation about the situation in Khuzestan, while praising the alleged efforts of IRGC and security forces to provide water to the province. 

The Twitter accounts sharing this hashtag bear many of the hallmarks of inauthentic accounts: low follower accounts, high volumes of tweets, and a singular focus. For example, the account @Areza13788 has (at time of writing) posted more than 30 tweets or retweets featuring the hashtag since 12:00pm UTC on July 21 (that is, within the space of 24 hours). Several of the accounts retweeted by @Areza13788 show similar patterns of activity suggesting inauthentic behaviour during this period. Further examples of inauthentic accounts are available below:

Who is Responsible For These Internet Disruptions?

On December 14, 2019, just after the November 2019 protests and the nationwide internet shutdown, Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi announced a bill to formalise  the internet shutdown process in Iran. However, According to a source close to the ICT Ministry who spoke to Filterwatch on the condition of anonymity, this bill was never introduced in the Majles due to pushback from security agencies, mainly from the National Security Council (NSC) (Persian: شورای امنیت کشور or شاک ). Instead, the bill became a top-secret resolution of the NSC.

According to Filterwatch sources, the resolution sets out the process for ordering and implementing internet shutdowns in Iran. This may have been initiated following the November 2019 protests, when Iranian authorities envisioned more frequent impositions of internet shutdowns in order to repress and silence protests.

Based on information passed on to Filterwatch, internet shutdowns on provincial levels can be requested by governors which needs to be approved by the Interior Minister who chairs the NSC. If there is a request for internet shutdowns in multiple provinces at the same time then the  president will need to approve the order.

According to Filterwatch’s source the recent internet shutdown in Sistan and Baluchestan appears to have been the first time that internet shutdowns were implemented in accordance with this resolution. However, it remains unclear whether or not this process was followed for implementing the current internet disruptions in Khuzestan. 

Nevertheless it is deeply concerning that Iran has formalised internet shutdowns, in a tacit acknowledgement of the normalisation and the routine use of internet shutdowns as a tool for restricting freedom of expression. It is also deeply concerning that – as demonstrated by the current internet shutdowns in Khuzestan – Iranian officials remain unwilling to acknowledge, or to be held accountable for the internet shutdowns taking place in the country, or to be transparent about the decision-making processes behind them. 

[Update: Tuesday 20 July 2021]

On 20 July, protests continued for a sixth evening across Khuzestan province. The provincial capital Ahvaz, and the cities of Izeh, Abadan, Khoramshahr, and Susangerd are some of the cities that have seen the largest protests.

Iranian authorities and security forces have continued to violently crack down on these protests.  Recent footage from Izeh shows security forces firing teargas canisters towards crowds of protestors, accompanied by the sound of gunshots. At least three protestors have been confirmed to have been killed. A number of protestors are also reported to have been injured, with a further number having been arrested. These figures could rise further as more information becomes available. According to Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) one security officer was killed and another was injured. 

According to the digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi, mobile internet on two of the county’s main providers, Irancell and MCI, were cut off in the city of Ahvaz from around 1.30pm local time on 20 July. Access to domestic services via the National Information Network was also cut off during this time.

Internet connection remains intermittent in the area. It appears that similar disruptions were in place in other parts of the province where protests took place.

Social media users have also reported that Instagram has taken down user content related to the Khuzestan protests, stating that the posts are “against community guidelines” on “violence and incitement.” 

In other parts of Iran, protests have taken place in solidarity with the conditions in Khuzestan. In the capital city of Tehran a number of activists – including the veteran human rights advocate Narges Mohammadi – gathered outside the Interior Ministry, but were subsequently arrested by security forces. They have since been released

In other videos emerging on social media, anti-government chants can be heard being shouted from windows in Tehran, as well as by crowds at a station on the Tehran Metro

Protests Breakout in Khuzestan Province Amid Severe Water Shortages 

On the evening of 15 July, reports emerged of protests breaking out in a number of cities across the southwestern Province of Khuzestan, with footage of the protests circulating on social media the next day. 

The protests were sparked by a severe water crisis which has prevented many of the province’s inhabitants from being able to reliably access clean drinking water. This crisis comes in the midst of what Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian has described as Iran’s “driest [year] in 50 years”.

Although Khuzestan province sits at the heart of Iran’s sprawling oil sector, holding around 80% of the country’s on-shore reserves, it does not reap the rewards; the province suffers from immense wealth inequalities, high unemployment, and a major water crisis. Over the past two years, there have been protests in Gheyzaniyeh Rural District over a lack of access to water, which was met with force by security authorities. During a parliamentary session on 19 July, Mojtaba Mahfouzi, MP for Abadan stated that “Khuzestan experiences a crisis every day.” 

Spreading Protests Are Met With Rolling Network Disruptions

The protests have continued on a daily basis since 15 July, with protesters taking to the streets in the evenings in order to avoid afternoon highs in excess of 50°C. These evening protests have been met with a violent state crackdown, with footage showing heavy deployments of security forces and anti-riot police attacking street protestors with batons and firearms. At least two protesters have been killed, and a number have been arrested and injured. These figures could rise further as more information becomes available. 

On Sunday 18 July, the cybersecurity and digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi confirmed intermittent disruptions to mobile internet access in Khuzestan province, with disruptions particularly notable on two of the country’s main internet providers MTN-Irancell and MCI. Rashidi notes that another unique feature of the Khuzestan disruptions is their levels of hyper-localisation: they are imposed specifically on those areas experiencing protests and unrest, and for varying periods of time to allow security forces to disperse gathering crowds. 

The limitation of mobile services is significant, with internet users in Khuzestan dependent on mobile services for connectivity: according to Iran’s Communication Authority (CRA), mobile internet penetration rates in the province are at 105.97%, compared to fixed broadband rates of 7.97%. Rashidi also added that connectivity to domestic services and apps remained via the National Information Network. 

Internet Disruptions Could Signpost Further Crackdown

Iranian authorities remain determined to cover up the human rights abuses being imposed against protesters. Khuzestan province’s security forces have denied any involvement in the deaths during the current protests, claiming that one person was shot and killed at the scene of the protests “by rioters.” The province’s Governor, Qasem Soleimani Dashtaki has also claimed  that footage of the protests released on social media is false, and said that it is being used to “provoke” the public. 

Elsewhere, on the morning of 19 July, Iran’s outgoing ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi was summoned to a public session in Majles in order to respond to MP’s questions about the messaging app Telegram in the country. He made no mention of the internet shutdowns or disruptions in Khuzestan during the session. 

Across Iran, economic pressures, water shortages, electricity blackouts, and the pandemic have driven a steady decline in living standards in recent months, provoking a series of labour strikes and unrest. In response, Filterwatch has observed an increase in the deployment of localised internet shutdowns, which are designed to frustrate mobilisation, and prevent the flow of information outside of affected regions. These increasingly localised disruptions are difficult for outside observers to detect – a worrying development in light of Iran’s record of using shutdowns to provide a shroud of darkness to crack down harshly on protestors by restricting the flow of information, allowing them to commit human rights violations with impunity.  

The tragic experience of November 2019, and the recent protests in Sistan and Baluchestan serve as clear warnings that Internet shutdowns are closely linked with the acceleration and intensification of violent crackdowns on protests. Filterwatch strongly condemns the violent response of security forces in Khuzestan, which has already led to the death of protestors. 

We also condemn the use of internet shutdowns under any circumstances; we call for Iranian authorities to immediately restore full internet connectivity to users in Khuzestan, and to fully respect the fundamental rights of all Iranians to access the global Internet securely, and free from censorship.