On Nov. 15, Ayla Jahangard, a University of Georgia student whose family lives in Tehran, Iran, texted her aunt to wish her a happy 50th birthday. One of the last messages they sent each other that day read, “I miss you.”
The next day, the Iranian government shut down internet access across the country, leaving more than 83 million individuals, including Jahangard’s family, without communication outside of Iran.
“It’s so hard to not know if everyone’s okay,” Jahangard, a junior international affairs major said. “One day we were all saying happy birthday and then there’s just silence.”
After the Iran government announced an increase in gas prices by 50%, the government issued an internet shutdown to reportedly quell subsequent protests.
An internet observatory company, NetBlocks, found a network connectivity of 8% in Iran on Nov. 21, 113 hours after the shutdown, meaning only 8% of the country was connected to the internet. The national network connectivity increased to 22% on Nov. 23.
Jahangard and Ramin Zareian, senior philosophy major, said they believe the internet shutdown targeted Iranians ability to seek help outside the country. Zareian said they believe the shutdown was devised to further “oppress” its citizens and “hide” the chaos in the country.
“Day to day life is hard for [Iranian citizens],” Zareian said. “The people don’t want a theocracy, they don’t want to be oppressed anymore.”
Zareian’s also has family living in Tehran, the nation’s capital, and said the standard of living has decreased while prices of necessities and food have increased.
The current wave of protests is similar to those that started in 2017 against President Hassan Rouhani’s government and the rising prices of basic goods. In Dec. 2017, the Iranian government shut down internet access in parts of the country.
Kevin Jones, an assistant professor of history and specialist in the modern Middle East, said the recent shutdown proves the Iran government has a “kill switch” to isolate the country.
“The [internet shutdown] was motivated by two concerns: obstructing domestic coordination between protestors and between regions of the country,” Jones said. “And preventing international coverage of both the protests and the ensuing government crackdown.”
Observing the aftermath of the internet shutdown, Jones said the Iranian government’s strategy is working.
After multiple generations in their family witnessed violence in Iran, Zareian said they hope to see a “lasting” change in Iran for the people.
“The people don’t want violence. They want peace and a decent standard of living,” Zareian said.
Jones said the recent economic woes for Iran came after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would no longer participate in a nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which waived United Nations, European Union and U.S. secondary sanctions on Iran.
The deal, established under the Obama administration in 2015, ensured Iran’s nuclear program would be “exclusively peaceful.”
In November 2018, the president reimposed sanctions designed to deter non-US countries and companies from trading with Iran.
Jones said Trump’s decision is motivated by the desire to change the Iranian government’s behavior by introducing new sanctions and minimizing other countries from partnering or importing goods from Iran.
Jones said the current administration hopes to renegotiate the JCPOA terms which set the limits of Iran uranium usage. Jones also believes U.S. sanctions are a way to end Iranian support for the Syrian government.
“The U.S. goal, on the other hand, seems to be to inflict maximum economic pressure on the Iranian government and pain on the Iranian public to intensify instability and anger inside the country,” Jones said. “So that either popular anger sweeps away the regime or the regime relents and accepts new, humiliating U.S. demands in order to restore economic stability and mollify the crowds.”
The International Monetary Fund found an inflation rate of 35.7% and a decrease of 9.5% in Iran’s gross domestic product growth rate in 2019.
Along with sanctions, Trump announced plans to bring Iran’s oil exports down to zero in April, the country’s principal source of economic revenue. The Trump administration announced it plans to “continue to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until its leaders change their destructive behavior.”
“The U.S. sanctions are hurting the economy, which mostly hurts the people,” Zareian said. “It’s not helping.”
Due to the internet shutdown, Kimia Keshani, a senior graphic design major, was unable to wish her cousin happy birthday.
Despite the economic and political turmoil, Keshani describes Iranians as “people who love to love people.” She urges others to not think “negatively” of Iranians in light of the protests, saying the government is to blame and the people are the victims.
Stereotypes that Iranians are all terrorists or “radicals” are frustrating, Jahangard said. She said the culture of Iranians is stigmatized by many as a “dangerous” society.
“People think of Iran and they think ‘Nukes,’ which is ridiculous,” Jahangard said. “They are the warmest people you’ll meet and they just want to be free.”
Jahangard’s parents, who were raised in Tehran, are pained at the current situation in Iran and said it is not the country they “recognize” or wish to exist. As an American who’s connected to their Iranian culture, Jahangard said she hopes the media and other Americans will support, not stereotype, her family and Iranians.
With over half of her family residing in Iran, Keshani said she prays for a day where her family can enjoy “true” freedom.
“You never know when’s the last time you’ll speak to your family,” Jahangard said. “I just hope I can speak to them soon. I just hope they’re okay.”
Correction: Ayla Jahangard's first name was misspelled in a previous version of this article. The Red & Black regrets this error, and it has since been fixed.