Social Media as a Window into Political Tensions in Iran

Raz Zimmt analyzes the public protests on Iranian social media responding to restrictions imposed by President Rouhani's opponents on his supporters in the Majlis.

With the approach of the Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for May 2017, the power struggles between President Rouhani and his hardliner political rivals are intensifying. In the last few weeks, a strident debate has emerged over limitations that the conservative-controlled judiciary placed on two members of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) associated with the presidents. The conflict quickly moved from the political arena to the virtual world, and social networking sites (SNS) became a central tool for both sides' political and public efforts.

On November 20, Majlis member Ali Motahari was supposed to give a speech in Mashhad. Motahari, the brother-in-law of Majlis speaker Ali Larijani, is considered one of the most prominent supporters of President Rouhani in Majlis. In recent years, he has adopted a critical approach towards the regime’s conduct on a variety of controversial issues, such as individual freedoms and political arrests. Shortly before Motahari’s arrival in Mashhad, the city prosecutor cancelled the speech and locked the venue.[1] President Rouhani criticized the cancellation, calling it “a source of shame.” In a letter sent to the Minister of the Interior, the president claimed that those who cancelled the speech were encouraging extremism and sectarianism in society, and instructed the ministry to investigate the incident.[2]

The cancellation of Motahari’s speech and President Rouhani's strong response sparked widespread discussion on social networking sites (SNS). The president’s supporters came to Motahari's defense. They used the hashtag “#Free Mashhad" to attack the judiciary and accuse senior clerics in Mashhad, led by radical cleric and Friday preacher Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, of stifling discourse.[3]

At the same time, Rouhani's supporters launched a campaign on SNS using the hashtag “#source of shame,” referencing the president's words. With this hashtag users extended their criticism to other negative developments in Iran. The campaign quickly became a virtual confrontation between supporters and opponents of the president. Supporters of the president and the reformist opposition presented breaches of individual liberties, political repression, and arrests of political dissidents as “sources of shame.” By contrast, according to Rouhani's opponents “the true source of shame” was the failure of the president and his government to improve the economic situation, reduce the hardships faced by citizens, combat traffic accidents and air pollution, and fight corruption. To illustrate their argument, they uploaded graphic images of poverty and distress in Iran.[4]

A few days after the cancellation of Motahari's speech, an attempt was made to arrest Majlis‎ member Mahmoud Sadeghi, also identified as a Rouhani supporter. On November 27, security forces arrived at Sadeghi‎’s home with a warrant issued by the judiciary, and tried to arrest him. The warrant was issued after Sadeghi raised allegations against the Head of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, claiming Larijani held public funds in private bank accounts. Ultimately, a group of supporters gathered outside of Sadeghi’s home prevented the arrest.[5]

In a series of tweets, Majlis member Sadeghi protested the attempted arrest and claimed that it was illegal, a violation of his parliamentary immunity. He stressed that the pressures applied by the judiciary would not detract from his determination to continue the fight against corruption in all government institutions.[6] Other allies of the president also harshly criticized the attempted arrest. Among those supporting Sadeghi‎ was Majlis member Ali Motahari. Motahari argued, in a letter to Tehran’s general prosecutor, that the attempted arrest‎ might deter members of Majlis from carrying out their duties, for fear of being arrested or summoned for questioning.[7]

The arrest of Sadiq also sparked frenzied comments on SNS. During the attempt, SNS were flooded with expressions of solidarity with Sadeghi. His supporters were called to come prevent the execution of the warrant and real-time photos and videos of citizens and security guards gathering around his home were transmitted on Twitter. The campaign of support included sharing hundreds of tweets with the tag “Mahmoud Sadeghi‎ is not alone.”[8] A group of citizens supporting Sadeghi was also launched on the Telegram network. The group, with nearly 4,000 members, not only expressed support for Sadeghi‎ but also uploaded content identified with general positions of the reformist camp. These included slogans in favor of freedom of speech, expressions of support for President Rouhani and his government’s policies, and criticism of Rouhani's conservative opponents.[9]

The cancellation of Majlis‎ member Motahari's speech and the attempted arrest of his colleague Sadeghi‎ evoked a discourse on SNS that exhibited the growing tensions between the two main political camps in Iran - the reformist president’s supporters and opponents. This tension is expected to intensify in the coming months, as the presidential elections approach. Based on past experience, we can assume that the upcoming presidential election will lead to increased use of SNS, which is expected to reach new highs in both political camps. Using SNS as a central arena for managing the campaigns may help expose the Iranian public to opposing political opinions, but may also increase political polarization.



[1] “Details about the cancellation of Ali Motahari’s speech,” Fararu, November 22, 2016.

[2] “Events in Mashhad are a source of shame,” Tabnaki, November 22, 2016.

[3] #FreeMashhad, Twitter.

[5] “Iranian judicial authorities attempt arrest of MP," The Guardian, November 28, 2016.

[6] @mah_sadeghi,,  November 28-29, 2016.

[7] “Letter of of Ali Motahari regarding Mahmoud Sadeghi,” ISNA, November 29, 2016.

[9] “Campaign to support Dr Mahmoud Sadeghi,” Telegram.