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.

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Iran’s nonsensical ban on a best-selling mobile game

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By Amir Basiri

An Iranian government committee recently announced a ban on the famous mobile game “Clash of Clans,” claiming the game encourages violence and tribal conflict while having a negative addictive effect on teenagers.

If violence is a true concern for the Iranian regime, “Clash of Clans” should be the least of its worries, because the government is already knee-deep in inciting violence. There are public hangings and lashings, crackdowns on protests and peaceful events, broadcasts of propaganda against minorities, and military theme parks where children can fire at the United States flag with live ammunition, to name a few.

The truth is Tehran fears anything of historical, cultural, economic or political nature where people can find common ground and get together.

The real concern with “Clash of Clans” is the capability the game provides for people to socialize and interact beyond the regime’s control.

The regime’s hysterical mistrust of online platforms dates back to the country-wide uprisings following the rigged 2009 elections in Iran, which were organized and widely covered on social media. The regime has since been extremely wary of any online service that allows people to connect and exchange information, including video games.

In August, the government banned “Pokemon Go,” the augmented reality game that has seen sensational success across the globe since its July 2016 release. At least the regime was honest enough to cite security concerns, even though it didn’t specify how the game was a security threat. “Pokemon Go” has created events where thousands of people gather in one location.

The regime is extremely fearful of any medium that could be used to organize large gatherings, as it showed earlier this year in the crackdown of the Cyrus the Great gathering at Pasargade or the restrictions it imposes every year on the Persian fire festival ceremony.

The regime’s disdain of “Clash of Clans” — which already enjoys a millions-strong audience in Iran and has many socializing and communication features — is of a political and security nature rather than an ethical and moral one, and its ban is in line with the regime’s crackdown on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

This is not the first time the Iranian regime has resorted to near-comical excuses to justify its censorship of internet services. WhatsApp, the secure messaging app, was banned by Iran in 2014 after being acquired by Facebook, whose owner is Jewish.

With Iran’s next presidential elections looming close, we can expect the regime to resort to more excuses to push constraints on online services and games in order to reduce the chances of another uprising erupting.

These are the traits of a regime that lost its legitimacy years ago, and is paranoid of anything and everything, even mobile games, and vies for total control over every channel of communication.

As they’ve been doing in the past years, tech-savvy Iranians will no doubt find ways to circumvent the ban and continue playing the game, albeit with a little more unease. The regime’s excuse to cut access to the game will only become another subject of mockery on social media platforms.

Amir Basiri is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is an Iranian human rights activist.

Originally posted in Washington Examiner