(Adds comment from Instagram spokesperson)
(CNSNews.com) – The photo- and video-sharing website Instagram has taken down the accounts of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials, including Qods Force chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, according to state media.
The move comes shortly after the Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization took effect.
Among others affected, according to the Mehr news agency, were overall IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari; the former head of state TV Ezzat Zarghami, who is a former IRGC general, sanctioned by the U.S. and European Union for human rights abuses; and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former IRGC Air Force head who has also served as Iran’s police chief and as mayor of Tehran.
Attempts to access those accounts led to “this page isn’t available” dead-ends.
In response to queries an Instagram spokesperson said, “We operate under the constraints of U.S. sanctions laws.”
“We work with appropriate government authorities to ensure we meet our legal obligations, including those relating to the recent designation of the IRGC.”
Instagram was unable to provide a list of the accounts that have been removed.
Some reports said supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s English-language Instagram account had also been taken down, although it was accessible early Thursday – as was his main Farsi-language account, which boasts 2.5 million followers.
Javan, a hardline newspaper, said Instagram’s decision ran “contrary to the claims of free speech and the free flow of information.”
Last month a senior advisor to Iran’s parliamentary speaker complained about “the Western model of free speech” after Instagram took down a posting on his account which called Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah a champion in the fight against terrorism.
Soleimani, whose Instagram account had 104,000 followers before being removed, is a highly-controversial figure for the U.S., accused of responsibility for the killing, by Qods Force-backed Shi’ite militias, of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
He is under U.S. sanctions for supporting terrorism, for supporting the Assad regime’s repression in Syria, and for an aborted 2011 Qods Force plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by bombing a restaurant in Washington.
Soleimani in recent years abandoned his once low profile and his image is frequently seen in Iranian media.
Last November he used his now-shut down Instagram account to post a photo of himself, using Game of Thrones-style symbolism, with the message directed at President Trump: “I will stand against you.” (It was in response to a Trump tweet of a Game of Thrones-style poster with the tagline, “Sanctions are coming.”)
Soleimani’s account also featured numerous images of Khamenei, including last month, when the ayatollah awarded him Iran’s highest military honor, and expressed the hope Soleimani would die as a martyr – but “not too soon.”
Followed by hundreds of thousands
The regime’s minister for information and communications technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, responded this week to a Twitter posting – by Israel’s foreign ministry – about the Instagram shutdown with a Game of Thrones-related message of his own.
“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you FEAR what he might say,” he tweeted, borrowing a quote from one of the novels adapted for the popular series.
Israel’s foreign ministry fired back at Jahromi, “When you tear out the tongues of millions of Iranians, by blocking twitter and facebook in your country, I think you fear what THEY might say.”
Unlike Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are officially blocked by the regime, and Iranians can only access them via a virtual private network (VPN).
Despite the official ban, senior Iranians use the platforms to share their opinions. Khamenei’s English-language Twitter feed has more than half a million followers, and he also has accounts in Farsi (183,000 followers), Arabic (25,000) and French (23,000).
On his English Twitter account, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has 1.14 million followers, while President Hassan Rouhani’s English Twitter feed has 809,000 followers and his Farsi account has 692,000.
A purported Soleimani Farsi-language Twitter account – but which does not have a blue verified badge – has 46,000 followers.
The exiled Iranian opposition group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) pointed out Tuesday that Iranian leaders maintain their own accounts despite having banned Facebook, Twitter and the popular messaging app Telegram in Iran.
“One might question whether the regime is scared of what its people might say,” it said.
NCRI praised the move by Instagram, and said “other social media networks should come onboard to remove hate speech by terrorists from their platform.”
The IRGC is the first arm of a foreign government ever to be designated an FTO under U.S. law, a step that was announced last week and took effect on Monday. The regime responded by declaring U.S. forces in the region to be “terrorists” and the U.S. a state sponsor of terrorism, as a “reciprocal measure” against the “illegal and unwise” move.
The decision prompted Zarif to launch a diplomatic blitz seeking support around the world, state media reported.
Zarif (whose own Instagram account, with 727,000 followers, remains accessible) complained in a letter to foreign counterparts that the act of naming part of a government as a terrorist group will have “dangerous legal and political consequences.”
He has also sent letters of protest to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and to the U.N. Security Council.