The Iranian government has officially released a mobile messaging app in a bid to encourage users to abandon the currently banned Telegram messenger.
Soroush, a homegrown app promoted by the Iranian government, boasts most of the features found in Telegram, a popular app that was used extensively as a way of communicating during 2017’s anti-government protests.
The push for Soroush comes as the National Cyberspace Center decided to withdraw Telegram’s license to operate in the country.
State press agency IRNA, said on Thursday that Telegram’s license cancellation was announced by the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company, the sole provider of telecommunication infrastructure in Iran.
People in Iran have reportedly been having problems using Telegram, which has 40 million users in the country.
Earlier this month, the Iranian government said it would permanently block Telegram and directed people to use homegrown services.
During last year’s protests, the government had said that it was blocking Telegram because of “national security issues”, referring to the encrypted messaging system Telegram uses that protects users’ messages from being read.
Instagram, another popular social media app, was also blocked during the protests.
Even government agencies used Telegram to communicate with Iranian citizens, but with the release of Soroush, several of those Telegram channels have been closed down, including Ayatollah Khamenei’s public channel.
Soroush, which has been available for several weeks, was officially launched on Thursday.
The government’s link to Soroush has raised concerns among Iranians that their could messages could be monitored. This was something that the government could not do with Telegram because it did not have access to the encryption keys and the app’s servers.
Soroush has similar features to Telegram, including so-called sticker packs that allow users to download new emoji to use in their messages.
In the Soroush sticker market, emoji of women carrying signs saying “Death to America” can reportedly be found, along with emoji criticising Israel and praising Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Battle over user privacy
Over the past few months, Telegram has been in legal battles with the governments of several countries.
Besides Iran, the messenger app was also recently blocked in Russia because the company refused to hand over its encryption keys to Russian security services.
Handing over these keys would allow the government to read all messages sent on the platform, violating user privacy.
As a result of Telegram being blocked in Iran and Russia, a growing number of internet users in both countries have started using virtual private networks, or VPNs – technologies to circumvent the block – which enables them to continue using Telegram.