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.

Will Iran Gain Or Lose By Blocking Telegram?

Forbes

Reports of Iran’s regime intending to block the popular messaging app, Telegram, is the source of a variety of reactions. If Iran’s rulers had it their way this platform would be blocked as we speak after similar measures temporarily grounded the network following the January uprising.

Various Iranian officials have also expressed their belief that the internet must remain intensely monitored and filtered. This is part of a broad cyber-repression campaign led by Tehran, pushing users towards domestically-made apps that can be monitored by the regime’s security apparatus.

However, even Iranian President Hassan Rouhani posed to oppose such actions due to his concerns of its consequences.

Iranian media outlets are criticizing Rouhani, saying as the President he stands against blocking, while as chair of the Supreme National Security Council he orders such actions. The question is why did Iran lift its initial blocking after the quelling of recent unrests? The answer is simple: social pressures and international backlashes.

In Iran’s current powder keg society any issue can ignite a major movement. On December 28th an increase in the price of eggs sparked a major nationwide uprising. In a matter of just hours protesters were chanting “Death to Khamenei-Rouhani,” referring to the regime’s Supreme Leader and President, respectively.

To this day Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli acknowledges that these protests spread to more than 100 cities, 42 of which witnessed serious unrests. He also went on to confirm that an uprising can begin at any moment in Iran.

When a price hike can result in the most significant crisis for the Iranian regime since the 2009 uprising, rest assured blocking Telegram – used by over 40 million people across the country and the jobs of at least more than half a million people depend on this application – will generate extremely dangerous consequences.

Reactions of this announcement, made by Aladdin Borujerdi, chair of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, saying the decision was made at the highest level, obviously referring to Khamenei himself, are more than telling.

“Blocking Telegram will not result in people shifting towards homegrown platforms. It will backfire,” said Iranian MP Farid Mousavi.

“This will distance the people further from the government,” added Gholamali Jafarzadeh, another Iranian MP.

Censoring the internet at any extent will also come with a heavy global price tag. Considered a violation of freedom of speech and other liberties, the international community has an obligation to condemn such a move by Iran’s regime.

During the few days that Tehran blocked Telegram in January, American political figures and Members of Congress hit back hard. This rendered the U.S. Treasury Department to permit private companies to launch free and high-speed internet access for the Iranian people.

Considering today’s developments throughout the world, escalating international isolation for Iran and significant changes in the U.S. political structure, any move by Tehran can bear unprecedented penalties.

More importantly, from Iran’s perspective, is future uprisings and the society’s explosive atmosphere. Iranian officials are saying Telegram was the main tool used to coordinate and issue calls for continuous demonstrations during the January uprising.

Saeed Hajarian, a political strategist in Iran, describes uprisings in Iran as a retreating wave that returns with far more force.

As a result, Tehran must decide if it has reached the point of no return and has no choice but to block Telegram for good. Iran is no longer choosing between bad or worse. Decisions now are between hard and harder.

Interesting is how in a recent TV interview Iranian Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Jahromi said there are 8,000 dissident Telegram channels. Twice he also mentioned a channel – or group – belonging to the Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), signaling the very threat Tehran is specifically concerned about in regards to the source of the recent uprising and ongoing protests.

A few weeks ago, another Telegram channel that is allegedly associated to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry and yet criticizes Tehran, placed a thought-provoking post asking:

“Why do people shift towards PMOI-linked channels? True, they have high quality posts. True, they have good video and … but those who do refer to PMOI channels are traitors.”

Ahmad Khatami, a senior member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts and a close figure to Khamenei also voiced concerns most likely mirroring those of the supreme leader:

“Cyberspace has become a major social dilemma and brought the enemy into our homes. Mothers should protect their children against cyberspace that is polluted with the enemy(!) The enemy intends to strike against the state through all means.”

To make matters worse, Iran is facing a very tumultuous period and a very high-risk decision. May 12th marks the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s deadline regarding the Iran nuclear deal.

Tehran has only two options:

  • succumbing to significantly curbing its ballistic missile program and Middle East meddling, while permitting snap inspections at all sites,
  • or maintaining its position and bracing for a return of crippling sanctions.

The irony for Iran lies in the fact that both options pave the path for further social uprisings. This leaves Khamenei with no choice but to block, at least temporarily, the very medium fueling the ongoing uprising and accept the consequences.

There is an undeniable reality that senior Iranian regime officials understand far better than anyone. Although the internet is a powerful tool in driving Iran’s protests forward, the very basis is the fact that conditions across the country are ripe for protest snowballing into nationwide uprisings and an all-out revolution.