With 800,000 followers, the Instagram page of the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force was among the most popular pages of Iranian officials on the photo-sharing website.

The Instagram comments, public appearances, travels and promotional posters of Qassem Soleimani — who as head of Quds commands the vaunted Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) outside Iran — were shared on the Instagram page, which is one of the only major social media sites that has not been blocked by Iran.

On April 16, a day after Washington’s designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization came into effect, Soleiman’s page, along with the Instagram pages of several other IRGC commanders, were blocked.

“Sorry, this page isn’t available,” a message on the page reads. “The link you followed may be broken, or the page may have been removed.”

An Instagram spokesman said it was operating “under the constraints of U.S. sanctions laws.”

“We work with the appropriate government authorities to ensure we meet our legal obligations, including those relating to the recent designation of the IRGC,” the spokesman said.

FILE - In this picture released by an official website of the office of the I
FILE – In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting with a group of Revolutionary Guards and their families, in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2019.

Iranian media reported that the English-language Instagram page of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the page of judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi were also blocked.

Khamenei’s Persian-language Instagram page, with 2.5 million followers, remains available. Khamenei’s English-language page was back up on April 17.

‘Take reciprocal actions’

The blockages were condemned in Tehran and prompted renewed calls from hard-liners for a blocking of Instagram, the second most popular social media platform in Iran after the communications app Telegram, which was blocked last year.

“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you aren’t proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you FEAR what he might say,” Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahrom wrote on Twitter, blocked in Iran since 2019, quoting the cult TV series Game of Thrones.

Other hard-liners, including Hossein Allah Karam, a leader of the paramilitary Ansar-e Hezbollah group, blacklisted by the U.S. for human rights abuses, also agreed that the time had come for the Islamic Republic to block Instagram.

“Social media sites use any opportunity to harm national interests. We need to be ready to confront these plots and take reciprocal actions,” Allah Karam was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

“Under the current conditions it is needed more than ever to filter these social media sites in support of the IRGC,” he said, adding that “the blocking of hostile social media sites such as Instagram will [prevent] them from doing what they want.”

The conservative chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, said he would stop posting on Instagram to protest the blocking of the pages of Khamenei and the IRGC commanders.

In a video posted on Instagram, Borujerdi said the “unwise move” reflected “the depth of America’s hostility” toward the Islamic establishment.

FILE - Iranians surf the internet at a cafe in Tehran.
FILE – Iranians surf the internet at a cafe in Tehran.

To block or not to block?

Iranian hard-liners have long called for tighter Internet censorship, including the blocking of Instagram.

Earlier this year, Javad Javidnia, secretary of Iran’s state committee on online censorship and deputy state prosecutor in charge of cyberaffairs, was quoted by domestic media as saying that the country was ready to block Instagram once the authorities agreed.

The move has been opposed by the government of President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 promising people more freedom and less censorship.

Iran blocks tens of thousands of websites, including news sites and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but many Iranians access banned sites through virtual private networks and other anti-filtering tools.