No Selfies for Soleimani: Instagram Briefly Blocks Iranian General's Account

Qasem Soleimani's account was back online after just a day, but experts say the temporary removal was purposeful and only the latest chapter in Iran's quasi war on social media.

Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani (front) in a screenshot from his Instagram account.
Screenshot/Instagram

Social media platform Instagram temporarily removed on Wednesday the account of Iran's General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, in what appeared to be another chapter in the complicated relations between the Iranian regime and social media.

According to Iran's Fars News Agency, Instagram, a platform owned by Facebook, didn't offer any details on the shutdown of Soleimani's account which had 320,000 followers. Whatever the reason, the account was back online on Thursday.

Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a Middle East and Islam lecturer at Jerusalem's Shalem College pointed out the irony of Instagram's decision, noting that "last week we heard about the unilateral war declared by the Iranian regime against online criminals who posted pictures that break modesty laws. Steps were taken against 29 and eight models, who didn't change their behavior afterward, were arrested."

Gindin added that even Kim Kardashian, whose Instagram account was localized for her Iranian audience, was accused of conspiring to destroy Islamic and family values.

As explained by Gindin, when Iran announced the beginning of the crackdown on social media, a representative of the Revolutionary Guard's cyber-crimes unit said that officials from the social media companies had failed to respond to Iranian requests to close the accounts deemed harmful.

"So, this is their answer," said Dr. Gindin. "Instagram is taking down the account of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani."

Dr. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, also discussed the dual relationship between the regime and Facebook. "The discourse of the conservatives in Iran is disapproving of social media," Zimmt explained while adding that despite the ill-disposed attitude toward online social tools," they've learned how to use them. 

Although Facebook and Instagram are technically banned in Iran, millions of locals use them, as do government officials. This trend is on the rise, particularly over the last three years, partly thanks to the open policies of sitting President Hassan Rohani. Among others, conservative leaders like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can be found active on social media with multiple accounts.

Over the last year, significant amount of online traffic in Iran has been attracted to messaging application Telegram - the first such platform that the government decided to allow with no attempts to block it.

Dr. Zimmt point out that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to push support for his political policies with the use of dozens of accounts run by employees in his office.

The incident between Soleimani and Instagram is exceptional, however. The regime had an interest in promoting Soleimani as a cultural hero as part of propaganda attempts by the government. Facebook and other social networks often find themselves under pressure from organizations in the West - organizations like "Shurat HaDin" - which demand that Iran's central figures be banned from using their services.

But Zimmt says that similar to Iran's attempts at blocking applications, Attempts to block Iranian figures also have little chance of succeeding. This can be seen by a short search online: Even after Soleimani's account was taken down, others appear with his name, one with 6,000 followers which opened after his account was shut down, and another with 45,000 followers.

Instagram declined to comment on the matter.