DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A hardline cleric leading Friday prayers in Iran's capital called on the Islamic Republic to build its own social media, blaming popular international messaging apps for the unrest that accompanied days of protests over the country's flagging economy.
The demonstrations began on Dec. 28 and quickly spread across the country, prompting the government to suspend access to the messaging app Telegram, which was being used to publicize the protests, and briefly block the Instagram photo-sharing site. Twitter and Facebook were already banned.
With travel restricted across Iran, a nation of 80 million people roughly 2 1/2 times the size of Texas, online videos and images posted by activists have provided some of the only glimpses into the demonstrations, the largest in nearly a decade, which have mainly been held in the provinces.
Such images only provide a limited view of events on the ground, and can be easily manipulated. All of Iran's radio and television stations are state-run.
"Cyberspace was kindling the fire of the battle," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told thousands of worshippers gathered in Tehran. "When cyberspace was closed down, the sedition was stopped. The nation does not support a social network that has its key in the hands of the United States."
Amid the unrest and antigovernment rallies that began last week, Iran has also seen three days of pro-government demonstrations, with crowds in the tens of thousands. A similar rally followed Friday prayers in Tehran.
On Thursday, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said about 42,000 people at most took part in the week of anti-government protests, saying they went on as long as they did because of the "leniency, restrain, tolerance and interaction" of the government. He did not elaborate.
Fazli's comments marked the first government estimate of participation in the protests and appeared timed so authorities could contrast it against the mass crowds brought together for the pro-government demonstrations.
The government's move to block Telegram may have seriously curtailed protesters' ability to organize. The app boasts an estimated 48 million users in Iran, more than half the population.
"Communication blackouts constitute a serious violation of fundamental rights," a group of United Nations human rights experts warned in a statement Friday.
The White House has acknowledged looking at ways to help Iranian protesters access social media, but hasn't made any decisions on how to do so. President Donald Trump has repeatedly tweeted praise for the protesters, infuriating Iranian officials.
Iran briefly blocked Instagram before restoring access. Iran also has restored access to WeChat, a Chinese messaging app.
Videos of protests seen by The Associated Press purported to show demonstrators in Tehran on Thursday night, some chanting: "Death to Khamenei!" referring to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Friday, however, streets were calm ahead of the progovernment demonstrations.
At a soccer match Friday in Tabriz, a city in Iran's East Azerbaijan province some 330 miles northwest of Tehran, fans chanted: "People of Azerbaijan won't accept humiliation!"