World Politics

Iran's internet blackout enters fifth day as government claims victory over protesters

A gas station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration in Eslamshahr, near Tehran, pictured on November 17, 2019
AFP | Getty Images

Iran's internet blackout has entered its fifth day as the government continues to restrict citizens' access to the web amid protests over fuel price hikes.

According to internet mapping non-profit NetBlocks, Iran's connection began to drop in the city of Mashhad on Friday evening local time. Disruptions "increased in extent and severity" to create a near-total shutdown across multiple cities in the early hours of Saturday, NetBlock's data showed, with connectivity falling to just 4% of ordinary levels.

On Thursday, the organization reported a slight increase in Iran's connectivity, which rose to 8% of ordinary levels in the 113th hour of the blackout and increased to 10% shortly after. NetBlocks said it was "unclear if restoration will be sustained."

Mapping data from U.S. tech firm Oracle also showed a significant drop in connectivity, which had flatlined since Saturday but was showing signs of a slight recovery.

Oracle told CNBC via email that its Internet Intelligence service had noticed a "partial restoration" of connectivity in Iran on Thursday afternoon London time.

Mass protests erupted in multiple Iranian cities after the government announced on Friday it would ration gasoline and raise prices by at least 50%.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International claimed it had evidence that at least 106 protesters had been killed by the Iranian government across 21 cities.

"Shutting down communications over the internet is a systematic assault on the right to freedom of expression and suggests that the authorities have something to hide," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement.

Iranian officials dismissed Amnesty's claims as "disinformation" on Wednesday, according to Iranian news agency Fars, which also claimed that "hundreds of thousands" of government supporters had rallied across the country in response to the protests.

Speaking to state-funded broadcaster Press TV on Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the nation had emerged "victorious" from the unrest, claiming that demonstrators "took action based on a scheme pre-planned by … the Zionists and the Americans."

'Downward pressure' on US-Iran talks

In a note on Monday, Eurasia Group said the Iranian government was unlikely to compromise on fuel pricing despite demonstrations spreading to more than 100 cities and towns.

According to Eurasia's analysts, the most likely outcome would be protests fizzling out due to intense pressure from authorities.

"The protests will likely fade away within several weeks, for two reasons," they said. "First, the government will continue to respond aggressively by killing and arresting protesters and shutting down efforts by protesters to coordinate efforts across the country. Second, new cash subsidies — to be deposited in the bank accounts of some 60 million Iranians over the next week — will ease tensions."

Describing the scene, Eurasia said protesters were shouting anti-regime slogans and burning propaganda banners during the action, and had attacked some state infrastructure. However, oil export facilities — which are heavily guarded — were unlikely to be targeted, analysts noted.

They also speculated the unrest would put "downward pressure" on the chances of U.S.-Iran talks being held over the next year.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen in recent years, with President Donald Trump imposing new sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from a landmark deal restricting Iran's nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran has since violated the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal by breaching uranium stockpile and enrichment limits.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter over the weekend that the U.S. supported the protesters, while the White House said in a statement on Sunday that the U.S. "supported the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime."

Iran's IRNA news agency reported on Sunday that a foreign ministry spokesman had slammed Pompeo's tweet as a "hypocritical statement" with "evil intentions."

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Key Points
  • Iran has now exceeded its internationally-agreed stockpile limit of low-enriched uranium, breaching a key tenet of the 2015 nuclear deal that the Donald Trump administration abandoned last year.
  • The move comes amid rapidly escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran and against the backdrop of an Iranian economy buckling under the weight of U.S. sanctions.
  • Nuclear experts told CNBC this still leaves Iran a long way from having the capability to build a bomb.