Iranians see widespread internet outage amid mass protests

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iranians on Wednesday experienced a widespread internet blackout amid days of mass anti-government protests, including losing access to Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the last Western social media platforms available in the country.

An Iranian official had previously suggested such measures could be taken for security reasons. The loss of connectivity will make it harder for people to organize protests and share information about the government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Iran has seen nationwide protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly wearing the mandatory Islamic headscarf too loosely. Protesters have clashed with police and have called for the demise of the Islamic Republic itself, even as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International said security forces used batons, bird shots, tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. Eight deaths linked to the unrest were reported, including four people killed by security forces. Hundreds more were said to have been injured.

Iranian officials have reported three deaths, blaming unnamed armed groups.

Witnesses in Iran, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, told The Associated Press late Wednesday that they could no longer access the internet with mobile devices.

“We see that internet services, including mobile data, have been blocked in Iran for the past few hours,” Doug Madory, head of internet analytics at Kentik, Inc., a network intelligence company, said late Wednesday.

“Given the current situation in the country, this is probably a government action,” he said. “I can confirm a near-total internet connectivity collapse for cell phone providers in Iran.”

NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors internet access, had previously reported widespread disruptions to both Instagram and WhatsApp.

Facebook parent Meta, which owns both platforms, said it was aware that Iranians were being denied access to internet services. “We hope that their right to be online will be restored quickly,” it said in a statement.

Earlier on Wednesday, Iranian Telecoms Minister Isa Zarepour was quoted by state media as saying certain restrictions could be imposed “for security reasons,” without elaborating.

Iran already blocks Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube, although senior Iranian officials use public accounts on such platforms. Many Iranians circumvent the bans with virtual private networks, so-called VPNs, and proxies.

In another development, several official websites, including those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Presidency and the Central Bank, were shut down, at least briefly, as hackers claimed to have launched a cyberattack on state agencies.

Hackers linked to the shadowy Anonymous movement said they targeted other Iranian state agencies, including state television.

Central bank spokesman Mostafa Qamarivafa denied that the bank itself was hacked, saying only that the website was “inaccessible” due to an attack on a server hosting it, according to the official IRNA news agency. The site was later restored.

Iran has been the target of several cyberattacks in recent years, many by hackers who have voiced criticism of its theocracy. Last year, a cyberattack shut down gas stations across the country, creating long lines of angry motorists unable to get subsidized fuel for days. Messages accompanying the attack appeared to relate to the supreme leader.

Amini’s death has sparked protests across the country. Police say she died of a heart attack and was not abused, but her family have cast doubt on that statement, saying she had no previous heart problems and that they were prevented from seeing her body.

The UN Human Rights Office says morality police have stepped up operations in recent months, resorting to more violent methods, including slapping women, hitting them with batons and pushing them into police vehicles.

President Joe Biden, who also spoke at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, voiced his support for the protesters, saying, “We stand with the brave citizens and brave women of Iran who are demonstrating right now to secure their fundamental rights.”

The UK also released a statement on Wednesday calling for an investigation into Amini’s death and urging Iran to “respect the right to peaceful assembly”.

Raisi has called for an investigation into Amini’s death. Iranian officials have blamed unnamed countries for the protests, which they say are trying to foment unrest.

Iran has grappled with waves of protests in recent years, largely over a long-running economic crisis exacerbated by Western sanctions related to its nuclear program.

The Biden administration and European allies have been working to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which Iran restricted its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions lifting, but talks have been deadlocked for months.

Speaking to the United Nations, Raisi said Iran was determined to revive the nuclear deal, but questioned whether he could trust America’s commitment to a deal.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. It began expanding its nuclear activities after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 accord, and experts say it now likely has enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb if it chooses to.