Experts: Iran Disrupts Internet; dead in tower collapse at 34

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (TNZT) — Iran has cut off internet access to the outside world as angry protesters gathered after a tower collapsed in southwestern Iran that killed at least 34 people, experts said on Tuesday as outrage and grief continued to grow. country.

The disruption has plunged the southwestern province into digital isolation, making it difficult for journalists to authenticate events on the ground and for activists to share images and organize protests.

It’s a tactic the Iranian government has repeatedly employed during times of unrest, rights activists say, in a country where radio and TV stations are already state-controlled and journalists are under threat of arrest.

Internet interference in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan began in early May, weeks before the fatal collapse, said Amir Rashidi, a researcher at the Miaan Group, which focuses on digital security in the Middle East. The province, home to an ethnic Arab population that has long complained of discrimination, has been a flashpoint in protests over the sinking economy and soaring prices of basic foodstuffs.

Disturbance then escalated in the area after the Metropol building collapsed last week, according to data shared by the Miaan Group.

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The disaster sparked widespread anger in Abadan, where residents alleging government negligence gathered at the site of the collapse every night to shout slogans against the Islamic Republic. Videos of the protests have circulated widely online, some showing officers beating and firing tear gas at protesters.

The images analyzed by The The New Zealand Times matched known features in Abadan, some 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran. The number of casualties and arrests remains uncertain.

In response to the protests, Iranian authorities have sometimes completely shut down the Internet and other times allowed only strictly controlled use of a national intranet, the Miaan Group reported.

During the day, the authorities also appear to have restricted bandwidths to make it very difficult to share large files, such as videos, without leaving Abadan completely, said Mahsa Alimardani, senior researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights against censorship.

Last Friday, as massive crowds took to the streets to chant against top officials, a kind of digital barricade stood between Iran and the world, the data shows. Only certain government-approved domestic websites could serve content, but foreign-based websites could not.

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“There’s been a pattern we’ve seen when it’s dark where Google isn’t working but the Supreme Leader’s website is working fine,” Rashidi said.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Meanwhile, rescuers pulled another body from the rubble on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 34, amid fears more people could be trapped in the ruins. Five of the victims were school-aged children, the official IRNA news agency reported. Another 37 people were injured in the collapse, two of whom remain in hospital.

Officials blamed the building’s structural failure on shoddy building practices, lax regulations and entrenched corruption, raising questions about the safety of similar towers in the earthquake-prone country. Authorities said they had evacuated residents from buildings near the disaster site, fearing structural damage.

The mounting political and economic pressures come as talks to restore Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers have stalled. Hostilities have simmered as Iran ramps up its nuclear program well beyond the limits of the nuclear deal and last week seized two Greek tankers on a key oil route through the Persian Gulf.

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A sign of these growing tensions, the Iranian Foreign Ministry strongly criticized the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday for its quarterly report published the day before on Iran’s nuclear program.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh chastised the report’s findings that Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium had increased 18-fold since the 2015 nuclear deal, calling them a “not fair and balanced”.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog also said Iran still has not explained traces of uranium particles that IAEA inspectors found at old undeclared sites in the country – a sore point between Iran and the agency despite recent push for a resolution by June.

Khatibzadeh said the agency’s statements “did not reflect the reality of talks between Iran and the agency.”

“The agency must be vigilant and not destroy the path we have taken, with difficulty,” he told reporters in Tehran.

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