ANALYSIS: How Iran’s regime views the internet

Al Arabiya

For a short while Iran’s cyber security threats and its use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter came under the spotlight. This is good, but more is needed.

Iran runs a cyber-army and what has been unearthed recently is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Facebook, an important portion of this network was linked to an internet organization associated to the regime’s state-run TV/radio apparatus.

Reuters reports how this network is active in 11 languages across the globe, busy spreading fake news and pro-Iran political propaganda on the web. This grid, however, is only a small portion of the Iranian regime’s cyber-army, mostly directed by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Bassij paramilitary force.

Dual approach

In recent years, the IRGC has also launched numerous cyber attacks targeting various banks, scientific centers, economic and industrial facilities in the United States, hacking their internet networks in the process. US officials have in response sanctioned individuals associated to this network.

Interesting is how the Iranian regime has a double standard approach in regards to the internet, considering it both an opportunity and a threat. Tehran takes advantage of the internet as a medium to promote its reactionary mentality, “export revolution” (read extremism) and also post fake news about its dissidents.

On the other hand, it’s quite interesting how the regime deprives the Iranian people of free access to the internet and its officials describe the internet as a threat for the regime in its entirety, going the distance to limit access.

A closer look

The Iranian regime’s cyber army is mainly controlled by the IRGC, centrally based in Tehran and commanded by an IRGC division stationed in the capital.

Ghasam.ir is the main website of this entity and more than 2,500 other sites are actively controlled through this medium, according to senior IRGC cyber-army officials.

Tehran’s IRGC cyber-army battalions are designed based on the regime’s needs in cyber-warfare and responses to cultural issues. At least one cyber-army battalion is established for each section of the large Iranian capital.

According to the regime’s terminology, these websites are responsible for launching “currents” on international, cultural and economic issues. IRGC Bassij members involved in social media and creating “currents” are literally creating fake news and/or behind special propaganda campaigns involving complete lies. A large number of the personnel active in this field of work are official reporters of the Bassij Press network.

Bassij cyber-army battalions have throughout the years expanded in various cities across Iran. The IRGC and Bassij have also embedded cyber-army units in all government and state entities, most importantly the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

The technical and communications means available in this entity allow the IRGC cyber-army to expand its activities across the globe.

The IRIB cyber unit consists of seven such battalions and 1,200 personnel, according to the IRGC-associated Youth Journalists Club. The IRIB has also launched other cyber units to confront “the enemy’s soft war” against the regime and “present to the world the objectives and goals sought through the Islamic revolution,” according to Iranian officials talking to state media.

Iran has also established cyber units in a variety of other sectors, including the country’s important colleges and universities, religious schools and even the “Cyber Hizbullah,” in charge of organizing the cyber activities of IRGC Bassij and other such units.

A religious scholar sporting rings and holding his worry beads types on a computer at a school in Qom on 18 February 2000. (AFP)

 

Controlling the internet

The Iranian regime also uses all means provided by the internet to limit the Iranian people’s access to the world wide web. Tehran’s clerics understand very well that with the free flow of information the entire crackdown apparatus imposed on the Iranian people will begin to fissure.

As a result, the regime’s ideological pillars will weaken and Iranians across the country will gain knowledge of this regime’s corruption and economic bankruptcy. This literally represents an existential threat for the mullahs’ regime.

Iran’s 2009 and the recent Dec/Jan uprisings showed how protesters use social media networks such as Twitter, Telegram and Instagram to organize anti-regime demonstrations. In response, the Iranian regime has a tendency to block or limit the people’s access to the internet and social media platforms at times of crises.

Tehran’s clerics are also known to pursue plans to launch a “national internet network” aimed at completely blocking off the Iranian people from the internet and social medial networks. This, however, has become an impossible hurdle due to the regime’s technological and financial weaknesses.

The Iranian regime’s concerns about Telegram, a popular messaging app used by over 40 million people inside Iran, is a very clear indication.

“In a discussion with [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani we emphasized if Telegram’s vocal service is launched we will not be able to control anything,” said Hossein Nejat, deputy of the IRGC Intelligence Organization and in charge of the crackdown and arrest of cyber activists.

The Iranian regime has also failed to completely block Telegram. Senior regime officials have continuously encouraged people to use Iran-made messaging apps, only to prove a failure. The Iranian people simply don’t trust any indigenous software, knowing their information will be at the Iranian regime’s disposal immediately.

Iran’s concerns of people fully accessing the internet indicates the clerical regime’s political and intellectual failure and inability in confronting the modern world and the Iranian people’s protest movement against their reactionary apparatus.

The international community can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian people by both sanctioning Iran’s IRIB and providing free and unhindered internet access to the Iranian people.

Iran lobby gets excited over nothing

The State Department officially notified Congress on Wednesday that Iran has met all its commitments under the Obama-negotiated nuclear agreement. The certification is required every 90 days and the previous administration dutifully rubberstamped it each time.

What was unusual is that this approval was the first under the Trump administration and was being closely watched by regime supporters and foes alike. The decision to provide the approval was being loudly hailed and trumpeted by the Iran lobby, especially the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a known pro-Iran lobby, as a sign that the nuclear deal was working and even U.S. President Donald Trump had to admit so.

In the immortal words of ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the nuclear deal has failed to squash Iran’s ability and determination to develop atomic weapons, arguing that the country’s ambitions still threaten international peace and security, according to The Washington Post.

“An unchecked Iran has the potential to follow the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it,” Tillerson said in remarks to reporters in the formal setting of the State Department’s Treaty Room. “The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach.”

The White House has decided to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its Iran policy, including an evaluation of the deal officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. To this end, the granting of approval was a pro forma act and means relatively little moving forward.

“With this certification, President Trump must now uphold the United States’ obligations and renew the sanctions waivers,” said NIAC president Trita Parsi. “If not, Trump will place the U.S. in violation of its commitments and be responsible for unilaterally killing the nuclear deal.”

Parsi is correct in saying President Trump can effectively kill the Iran nuclear deal in a heartbeat by not renewing sanction waivers granted by the Obama administration. He, however, misses the entire point of the Trump administration’s review, aimed at finally tying together all of Iran’s actions in areas such as human rights, support for terrorism, and active military campaigns against its neighbors.

This was the crucial missing link in the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, willing to excuse Iran on a number of issues and delink the regime from the agreement.

Support the Assad regime as it drops chemical weapons on civilians? Not a problem.

Busy executing thousands of Iranian citizens and political dissidents? Go for it.

Allowing the beating and mistreatment of Iranian women for violations of moral codes and denying them education and job opportunities? Okay by us.

The effort to appease the regime only enabled and emboldened the mullahs, and now the Trump administration has to do the heavy lifting and hard work the Obama administration couldn’t and wouldn’t do, which is why this review will be so critical.

In a slap at the Obama administration that negotiated alongside the P5+1 for the deal, Tillerson said, “The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”

Congress has introduced bills extending U.S. sanctions against Iran related to its alleged support of terrorism, human rights violations and missile tests. Lawmakers have put the legislation on pause, however, because of the impact the bills could have in Iran’s presidential election scheduled for next month.

  •   Should the U.S. confront Iran directly by using military force against proxies such as the Lebanese Hizb’allah and Afghan mercenaries in Syria?
  •   Should Washington re-impose a broad swath of sanctions on Iran and target the commercial enterprises of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)?
  •   Should the Trump administration affirmatively embrace and recognize Iranian dissident groups, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and focus efforts on their inclusion back into Iran?

All these questions and more will have to be part of the White House review.

The administration is inclined to adopt a “more rigorous application of the tools at its disposal,” a senior White House official told Foreign Policy, referring to sanctions policy. Among the options under consideration: broadening U.S. sanctions to include much larger chunks of the Iranian economy linked to the IRGC.

In his remarks, Tillerson focused not only on the nuclear deal, but also on what he called Iran’s “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence.”

He specifically cited Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as hostility to Israel, the harassment of U.S. naval vessels plying the Persian Gulf and cyberattacks targeting the United States and its Gulf allies.

“Iran spends its treasure and time disrupting peace,” he said.

Time is of the essence considering the upcoming April 25th meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna for a quarterly review of the accord.

But President Trump doesn’t have to tear up the deal to tighten the screws on Iran. The agreement, which is not a treaty, provides broad leeway to signatory governments in interpreting its terms, and the Trump White House is mulling taking a much more forceful stance on enforcing the deal to the letter.

There are already signs that the Trump administration is using existing legal authorities in a more forceful manner than its predecessor. Last Thursday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Sohrab Soleimani, the brother of IRGC Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani, for his role in abuses in Iran’s prisons. And in February, the Treasury Department also blacklisted eight IRGC-linked organizations, including an official based in Lebanon.

At the end of the review, the question of whether or not to keep the nuclear agreement may not exactly be centered on the agreement itself, but rather on whether or not the cost of keeping the pact intact in place is too high compared to the cost of not containing Iran as it expands into Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, along with new threats to Bahrain and other Gulf states.