The Trump administration says it is “very concerned” about Tehran blocking Iranians from communicating via social media platforms in a bid to dampen four days of nationwide anti-government protests.

Iran blocked access to messaging app Telegram and photo-sharing app Instagram on Sunday, with state media saying the moves were meant to maintain peace. Iranians had been using the app to communicate about the street demonstrations, the biggest outpouring of public discontent with Iran’s clerical leaders since 2009 protests against the results of a disputed presidential election.

 

In an exclusive interview with VOA Persian on Sunday, Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton said there is not much Washington can do about Iran’s social media clampdown. But he said the Trump administration expects U.S. and other western companies to halt any concessions to the Iranian government. “(They should) not bow to any demands for censorship or curtailment of information,” Anton said. “(They should) continue doing business the way they always have, and let information flow freely into Iran.” He added that U.S. officials will be watching how those companies handle the issue.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov, a Russian entrepreneur whose company has offices in London, posted a tweet on Sunday, saying Iran had blocked access to the messaging app after his refusal to shut down communication channels that he said were being used for peaceful protests.

In an online statement, Durov said it is unclear if the blocking of Telegram will be permanent or temporary. He said Telegram would “rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.”

In a separate report published on Sunday, the Associated Press said U.S. tech giant Facebook, which owns Instagram, declined to comment about Iran’s blocking of the photo-sharing app.

U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the Iranian government in a Sunday tweet for “clos(ing) down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate”.

In his VOA Persian interview, Anton said the White House also is “very concerned” about reports of several deaths and injuries in the four days of anti-government protests in Iran. “We certainly mourn with all of the victims’ families and with the people of Iran,” he said.

Anton said the Trump administration is coordinating with its allies in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere to apply pressure on Tehran to allow the protests to continue and to address the protesters’ complaints about the high cost of living, government corruption and lack of democratic freedoms.

“We want to let them know that the world’s civilized nations stand with them and are in favor of their just grievances being addressed and against the destabilizing behavior and oppression of the regime,” Anton said.

 

In his first public response to the protests, Iranian state media quoted President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday as acknowledging that Iranians have the right to protest and criticize his government. But, Rouhani said social unrest and destruction of public property are unacceptable. He also said U.S. President Trump had “no right” to sympathize with the Iranian people. The Trump administration labels the Iranian government as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, a charge Tehran rejects.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA Persian