The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran claims it has lured a high-profile dissident to the country and arrested him while also seizing control of his popular anti-government Telegram channel.
In a message broadcast on Iran’s state television, the IRGC claimed that its agents had captured Ruhollah Zam as part of a “complex operation using intelligence deception”.
Mr Zam. 46. was the administrator of the Amad News channel on Telegram which at its peak had roughly 1.4 million subscribers exchanging stories and opinions in opposition to the country’s clerical regime.
He was based in France at the time of his arrest. It is unclear how the IRGC lured him to Iranian jurisdiction to arrest him, but in a statement is described him as being “guided into the country”.
The IRGC described Mr Zam as an important contributor to “the enemy’s media network” which was conducting “psychological warfare” and alleged that he was connected to intelligence services in France, Israel and the US.
According to the UN, approximately 53% of Iran’s 80 million citizens are internet users.
Roughly 60% of the country’s population is under the age of 30, and there are estimated to be more than 40 million mobile phone users in the country – almost all of whom are registered on messaging app Telegram, which offers encryption.
“Election campaigns are increasingly waged on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram,” according to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran.
“Social media networks serve as major platforms for Iranians to discuss political, social and cultural issues; and mobile applications are being rapidly developed for business start-ups,” the CHRI has stated.
Following the protests over the 2017-18 New Year, authorities in Tehran blocked Iranians’ access to Instagram and Telegram, despite President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to allow “space for legal criticism” of the regime.
Kaveh Azarhoosh, a senior researcher at Small Media. a non-profit focused on information exchange in the Middle East, noted to Sky News that Telegram – despite generally expressing its intentions to resist state censorship efforts – had not reacted to the IRGC’s seizure of Amad News.
“At the time the news became public, the channel had more than one million members. Since then the IRGC has already posted twice on the channel, and there is also the risk that they might use it to contact innocent Iranians and lure them into false confessions or incriminating statements,” Mr Azarhoosh said.
“Telegram’s popularity over the past few years has seen it become a part of everyday life for more than 40 million Iranians.
“But despite a series of repressive measures taken by the Iranian authorities against Telegram users, the company has failed to respond to the specific security needs of Iranian users, or to provide adequate levels of transparency reporting about its engagements with state authorities.”
Mahsa Alimardani, a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute who is researching the impact of Telegram on political communications in Iran, told Sky News the channel seizure was a propaganda coup for the IRGC.
“It’s unclear what Amad News’ impact on mobilising dissent during the 2017-18 protests were, but what is true is that it is an anti-regime platform, a source for sensational and viral content.
“It’s easy for Iranian authorities to blame a mass national protest movement on the nefarious intentions of a figure like Zam who they are now forcing to confess ‘crimes’ on Iranian television,” Ms Alimardani added.
“Ruhollah Zam is a significant figure,” she said.
“He is the son of a mid-level Iranian cleric, and he was able to leverage insider sources to access secret documents concerning national security and corruption, helping to fuel accusations against key figures within the regime such as the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
“It’s not clear how the IRGC captured him, but the way that the IRGC took control of the channel and started posting about his arrest, and the subsequent television coverage of his arrest and confessions, is significant PR for them,” Ms Alimardani added.
She told Sky News that her Telegram data collection showed that the second most popular hashtag across Persian-language channels following the arrest of Mr Zam was #Sepah while the tenth most trending topic was Sepah’s Intelligence – Sepah being the Persian for the Revolutionary Guards.
“People in Iran say that maybe after his arrest the government won’t censor Telegram anymore,” she added. “Others are afraid his arrest might precipitate a series of ‘chain’ arrests of any collaborators he had in Iran.”
A spokesperson for the Iranian embassy in London was unable to respond to a Sky News request for comment.