From “The People’s Bank” to “Humiliation Bank:” The Campaign against Iranian Banks' Boycott of the Revolutionary Guards

Raz Zimmt looks at the usage of social media by conservative, often pro-regime forces in Iran, despite their ostensible ideological opposition to such services.

In early September, two Iranian banks announced that they were suspending transactions with companies connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a move that was met with fierce public criticism. This censure led to a campaign on social networking sites (SNS) calling for a boycott of banks for allegedly disgracing the national honor and by their display of submissiveness to the West. This event once again demonstrates the willingness of conservative, right-wing opponents of the Iranian government to use SNS for political or public struggles, despite their objection on principle to such services. The campaign also highlights the willingness of Iranian citizens to join protests when they perceive harm to national interests.

On September 3, Iranian media reported that two local banks, Sepah and Mellat, were refusing to provide banking services to any institution having ties to the IRGC. This decision was made following the imposition of economic sanctions by the international community on such institutions, due to their involvement in Iran's non-conventional armament efforts and in terror activities. The daily newspaper, "Kayhan" reported that the banks’ decision was announced in letters they sent to a conglomerate subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards, "Khatam al-Anbia." This organization controls hundreds of companies and enables the IRGC to exert wide control over the Iranian economy..[1]

The Iranian banks’ decision is apparently related to the agreement being formulated between the Iranian government and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international initiative to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. This agreement is intended to allow Iran to be removed from the FATF’s “blacklist” and will lift significant limitations on Iran’s use of the international banking system, which remain in place even subsequent to the nuclear accords. The agreement being negotiated with FATF has sparked fierce opposition from the political opponents of President Rouhani, who accuse his government of surrendering to the task force’s demands regarding the support that Iran, and especially the IRGC, provides to terrorist organizations - with Hezbollah being first and foremost among these. Opponents of the government claim that the agreement is contrary to the country’s national interests, and have even compared it to the Capitulations Agreement that granted excessive rights to citizens of the United States living in Iran during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.[2]

Reports of freezing banking services to organizations owned by the IRGC quickly sparked strident protests in media outlets identified with the conservative right, and on SNS. On Twitter, dozens of tweets accused the banks and government of treason and of surrendering to the dictates of the West. From their perspective, Iran agreed to impose “self-sanctions” on its institutions even as the international sanctions were removed.[3] Commenting on the banks’ behavior, one user tweeted that Bank Mellat (in Persian: “People’s Bank”) is a suitable name for a bank that takes the interests of the people and nation into consideration, not for one that collaborates with the enemy.[4] Several users punned that the bank’s name ought to be changed from Bank Mellat to Bank Zellet (in Persian: “Humiliation Bank”).

Several users compared submission to the demands of FATF to events from Iranian history that the Iranian public generally considers to be emblematic of national humiliation. For example, it was compared to the Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) in which Iran surrendered large territories under its control to Russia.[5] Another recalled the 1890 Iranian tobacco protest against increasing Western domination of the country.[6] He claimed that if the religious leader of that time, Mirza Hassan Shirazi, were alive today he would issue a fatwa (Islamic legal ruling) to close all accounts in the Mellat and Sepah ‎ Banks.[7] Israel was also dragged into the campaign in the form of a logo designed in the shape of a Star of David (see picture), in order to transmit the message that the demands of FATF serve the interests of Israel.

The protest climaxed with a public campaign calling for a boycott of the banks. As part of the campaign against the two banks, a Telegram group was launched demanding the repeal of the “treasonous agreement with FATF,” and calling on citizens to take action to express their protest to the banks’ managements. The suggested steps included transferring their accounts to other banks, sending complaints to the bank via their Internet sites, not using the banks’ ATM machines, refusing to accept checks issued by the two banks, removing the banks’ apps from smartphones, distributing contents criticizing the banks on SNS accompanied by the hashtag “boycott bank Mellat/Sepah,” and burning credit cards and bank books issued by them.[8]

Many Iranians perceived the willingness of two Iranian banks to cut off companies connected to IRGC as an embarrassing surrender to Western dictates, and this led to the expressions of their anger on SNS. The PR campaign that developed against the behavior of the banks and the developing agreement with FATF provides evidence of Iranian citizens’ willingness to express their protest in instances that they consider a slighting of national pride and feeling of national honor. Similar responses appeared on SNS after the South Korean company Samsung announced its intention to block Iranian users’ access to its app store, because of the economic sanctions on Iran. That announcement set off a wave of criticism by Iranian users who opposed the company’s decision, and called for a boycott of its products.[9]

This campaign is another example of the willingness of forces on Iran’s conservative right-wing to use SNS as a tool for political and public relations purposes. The conservatives’ control of most traditional media in Iran has made SNS the central political arena for reformist and liberal groups but conservative opponents of the government do not absent themselves from SNS, despite their ideological opposition to them. Indeed, they use it to manage political and public struggles. This is reflected by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recent declaration that maximal usage should be made of SNS, just as Iran’s enemies use them.[10] Conservatives' increasing recognition of the potential for recruiting public support inherent in these networks may further increase their presence therein.

[1] “Local banks impose strong sanctions with the implementation of FATF,” Kayhan, September 3, 2016.

[2] “The FATF agreement is a greater disaster then the capitalist agreements, making the government responsible for implementing US policy within the country,” Fars News Agency, September 3, 2016.

[6] The tobacco protest was encouraged by senior Iranian religious leaders after the British Imperial Tobacco Company was granted an exclusive concession for selling and controlling tobacco and tobacco products in Iran. At the height of the protest, a religious authority (Mirza Hasan Shirazi,) issued a fatwa declaring smoking and using tobacco forbidden to all Iranian citizens.

[9] Raz Zimmt, "Who do Iranians blame for the blocking of Samsung’s app store in Iran?", Spotlight On Iran, 30 April, 2013,

[10] “Unprecedented guidelines from the leader of the revolution to cultural activists: We must make maximal use of cyberspace,” FARDA, August 17, 2016.