Telegram: The Most Popular Social Network in Iran

Raz Zimmt examines the use of the "Telegram" text messaging application in Iran.

Apps on smartphone.  Illustrative, from Pixabay.
The Telegram app on a smartphone screen.  Illustrative, from Pixabay.

In the past year, use of the Telegram network has expanded dramatically in Iran. Telegram is considered one of the most secure text messaging applications for cell phones. It is very common among Iranians for whom security capabilities are especially important, given the regime’s efforts to monitor traffic on social networking sites (SNS); this includes traffic on this secure app.

Recent figures, published at the end of 2015, show that the number of Telegram users in Iran exceeds 20 million. On December 26, Abol Hassan Firouzabadi, Secretary-General of the National Cyber Council, reported that almost 22 million Iranians have joined the network and 15 million are active users.[1] A survey conducted by the Iranian Student Polling Center (ISPA) in November and December 2015 also showed that Telegram has become the most common SNS in Iran, used by more than 37% of internet usesrs aged 18 and over. The survey showed that its usage in Tehran alone nearly doubled, ​​from 25% in March 2015 to 48% in the most recent survey. Concurrently, use of Viber, which had previously been considered the most common app used by Iranians – although it is less secure – dropped significantly: from 42% of Tehran residents using SNS in March 2015, to only 13% in the most recent survey. [2]

Telegram has also attracted government officials and media leaders, who have begun to open  channels on the app in recent months. Among those running channels are the Office of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Office of the President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian Broadcast Authority, and news agencies and leading news sites, some of which are affiliated with the radical right and the Revolutionary Guards, such as Fars and Tasnim.

The growing popularity of Telegram was very evident last July when its browsing speed in Iran slowed down for several weeks, sparking angry reactions from users. According to the Telegram company, the slow browsing speed was not caused by an overload but by local suppliers in Iran who tried to intentionally limit their network traffic.[3] The Iranian authorities have denied this, as well as the accuasation that they intended to block the network.[4]

A similar allegation was made in October 2015, as part of a public confrontation that erupted between the CEO of Telegram, Pavel Durov, and the Iranian authorities. On 20 October, Durov tweeted that access to Telegram was blocked in Iran, after the company refused to comply with the requirements of the Ministry of Communications to supply the Iranian authorities with surveillance tools for spying on citizens.[5] A Communications Ministry spokesman quickly denied this claim, saying that there was no intention to block Telegram.[6] A spokesperson of the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) also said that the government opposed total bans on SNS, and that this policy would remain in effect throughout the current government’s term.[7] Following these clarifications, Durov retracted his previous claim that the network had been blocked the authorities.[8]

Alongside the statements made by representatives of the Iranian regime that they would not block access to Telegram, IRGC did issue warnings about using the app. A message from the cyber warfare branch of the Revolutionary Guards said that although senior officials in Telegram had agreed to remove the option to send immoral stickers via app, it was still possible to use it for distributing content that could harm national security or the sanctity of Islam.[9] The authorities did not stay content with just the warnings, and launched a wave of arrests targeting administrators of channels on Telegram. By mid-November more than twenty administrators had been arrested and accused of disseminating “immoral” content via the network.[10]

Subsequently, Iranian media reported in December 2015 that a “smart filter” was being used to disqualify specific messages that include predefined, prohibited content. Iranian web users have testified that attempts to send messages including certain words or phrases have failed, and that they immediately received a message saying that the message could not be sent due to local restrictions in their country.[11] Nevertheless, in January 2016, the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, which is responsible for the policy on filtering and blocking websites, decided not to completely block access to the app. The Secretary of the Committee, Abdol Samad Khoramabadi , made it clear however that the judiciary retains the right to block the network in the future.[12]

The government’s ambivalent policy toward Telegram reflects an internal political power struggle in Iran. President Rouhani’s government has a relatively liberal attitude towards SNS and advocates removing blockages. This position is contrary to the approach of conservatives, who consider SNS to be tools that Iran’s enemies in the West use for cultural infiltration and espionage. This view was expressed, for example, in an article published in June 2015 by the radical site Mashregh News: “Telegram: Weapon or Software?” The site accused the app of being an “anti-social Zionist network” and claimed that one of the main investors in the company is Israeli-Georgian businessman Mikhael Mirilashvili, who it called a “senior Israeli security official.” The site further accused Telegram of systematically collecting information about network users and then transmitting it to Western intelligence services who use it for “social engineering” of Iranian society. Mashregh called on the authorities to take urgent action to block the “Zionist Internet war” and prevent the exploitation of private information about Iranian web surfers by “the enemies of Islam and Muslims.”[13]

The dramatic increase in the use of Telegram, parallel to the ongoing use of other SNS, points to the Iranian government’s failure to curb the infiltration of foreign SNS in Iran. One member of the committee responsible for filtering websites recently admitted that if the authorities were to prohibit using Telegram, the traffic would simply move to other apps.[14] The limitations imposed by the authorities on SNS and web apps are not only failing to prevent their use, but also improving the ability of Iranians to adapt smoothly to changing constraints, and switch between different networks quickly. The advanced encryption capabilities of Telegram may increase Iranian citizens’ sense of security when using it. This might, in the future, result in its increased use for dialogue on issues that are considered politically sensitive, including contacting international users, transmitting messages, and even organizing.



[1] “Firouzabadi’s data on Iranian users of Telegram,” Tabnak, 26 December 2015.

[2] “Interesting data about the use of Telegram in Iran,” Parsine, 1 January 2016.

[4] “Communications company cannot use Telegram,” Tasnim, 5 July 2105; “Iran Denies Censoring the Secure Messaging App Telegram,” Motherboard, 30 June, 2015.

[6] “The Ministry of Communications did not block Telegram,” Mehr, 21 October 2015.

[7] “Communications company: Telegram will not be blocked under this government,” Asr-e Iran, 21 October 2015

[9] “Revolutionary guards warn some Telegram users,” Alef, 20 October 2015.

[10] “Managers of 20 Telegram channels arrested,” Iran Daily, 15 November, 2015.

[11] “Smart screening of the Telegram in Iran,” DW in Persian, 22 December 2015.

[12] “Blocking Telegram not approved,” Tansim, 5 January 2016.

[13] “Telegram: Weapon or software?” Marshegh News, 19 June 2015.

[14] “75% of Telegram users are Iranian,” Mehr, 18 November 2015.