DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A hard-line cleric leading Friday prayers in Iran’s capital called on the Islamic Republic to build its own social media, blaming people taking advantage of the apps to fuel the unrest that followed days of protests over the country’s flagging economy.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami’s comments show the power the internet has wielded amid the demonstrations that began on Dec. 28 and quickly spread across the country.
With travel restricted across Iran, a nation of 80 million people roughly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas, online videos and images posted by activists have served as one of the few ways of seeing the demonstrations in a country where all radio and television stations are state-run.
However, such images represent only a moment in time and can be mischaracterized as well, which makes seeing what’s going on that much more difficult.
“Cyberspace was kindling the fire of the battle,” Khatami said. “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 anti-government 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.
Amid the unrest, Iran blocked access to the messaging app Telegram, which protesters have used to share videos and plan their rallies. Estimates suggest the app has 42 million users in Iran alone and its disruption appears to have affected the protests.
The Trump administration has acknowledged looking at ways to help Iranian protesters access social media, but hasn’t made any decisions on how to do so. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump himself has repeatedly tweeted praise for the protesters, infuriating Iranian officials.
Later Friday, an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, called for by the United States, is expected to discuss the ongoing unrest.
With council members divided in their views of the demonstrations that have roiled the Islamic Republic, it’s not yet clear how the discussion will take shape or what might come out of it.
At least 21 people have been killed in the unrest surrounding the protests, which began last week over rising food prices and Iran’s flagging economy before spreading to cities across nearly all of Iran’s provinces. Authorities have described the protests as waning.
Iran on Thursday directly blamed a CIA official for the protests. The Trump administration has denied having any hand in the protests, and the CIA declined to comment.
Khatami repeated those CIA accusations during his sermon to thousands in Tehran, saying Israel and Saudi Arabia backed the American efforts that used Iranian exile groups, like the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.
State television reported on Friday that Iranian security forces arrested three suspected MEK members in the city of Boroujerd, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) southwest of Tehran. It said the team was involved in “many sabotage activities,” in recent days, without elaborating.
The MEK did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Khatami called for internet apps to have their servers in Iran and the Iranian government to oversee their operations. He also said those who burn Iran’s flag should face the death penalty.
Many in Iran learned of the flag burning at protests through online videos.