While Israeli couple Ronny Edri and Michal Tamir made global headlines this week
with their “Israel loves Iran” Facebook campaign, Iranians face increasingly
aggressive crackdowns on internet use as the Islamic Republic ramps up its
attempts to control information and quash dissidents.
watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) named Iran as the “2012 enemy of
the internet,” and US President Barack Obama accused the Islamic Republic of
creating an “electronic curtain” cutting off Iranians from the outside
RWB said Iran’s cyber police “censors internet access so
effectively that [it] restrict[s] their populations to local intranets that bear
no resemblance to the World Wide Web.”
As well as blocking foreign news
and domestic dissident websites and jamming foreign satellite signals, Iran
arrests and imprisons those caught criticizing the regime. This year, the
Iranian Supreme Court has sentenced four internet users to death for various
charges, including “anti-government agitation.”
While Iran’s internet
crackdown intensified this month, Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of the University of
Haifa’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, said the Islamic Republic’s harsh
measures against internet use began as a reaction to the 2009 post-election
Dubbed both the “Twitter Revolution” and the “Facebook
Revolution,” the protests frightened the Iranian regime because leaders saw how
Iranians could use the internet to send real-time information and images of
events inside Iran to the outside world, Shahvar said.
“It showed what a
powerful means the internet could be in the hands of protesters,” he added. “The
web proved a serious propaganda weapon.”
Since then, Shahvar said the
regime has created an “atmosphere of squeezing out access to knowledge and
information from outside Iran.”
Shahvar added that the Revolutionary
Guards have also effectively taken over Iran’s telecommunications company, TCI.
Mobin Trust Consortium, which won the 2009 tender for TCI, is partially owned by
the Revolutionary Guards.
To operate, Iranian Internet Service Providers
(ISPs) require a permit from TCI and must first agree to implement email and
website content control software.
Shahvar said the regime’s cyber police
– who are controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitary
militia – have compiled a bank of names of those web users who criticize the
That list includes Iranians living outside Iran, some of whom
have reported receiving threats against their relatives in Iran, Shahvar
Ironically, Iran’s cyber police Persian website includes a recent warning that Google is invading users’ privacy and spying on
Iran turned up the dial on its attempts to control the internet
just over a week ago, when Supreme Leader Ali Khameini established a new
government internet monitoring agency, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace
Khameini said the new body’s aim was the “constant monitoring of
domestic and international cyberspace.”
Headed by President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, the SCC includes the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the
intelligence chief and other high-ranking officials.
On Tuesday, the
Revolutionary Guards-linked Fars News ran a lengthy article explaining
Khameini’s move, citing a Dr. Majid Alizadeh of the Center of Cyberspace
Studies, who echoed the Supreme Leader’s remarks that the SCC was a response to
America’s “soft warfare” and to “global contamination” by the US-dominated
Meanwhile, last month, Telecoms Minister Reza Taghipour announced
that Iran planned to launch its own “national internet” by early
Taghipour called the internet “a threat to Iran” that “cannot be
trusted” and accused Google of sharing information with the CIA, the Islamic
Ideology Dissemination Organization’s Mehr News reported.
Last week, the
government-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) also announced that
the country’s Cyber Defense Center will set up local email servers to prevent
state officials from using Gmail and Yahoo accounts. According to
Californiabased Payvand News, for several days last month Teheran also moved to
block https web domains, preventing Iranians from accessing secure mail services
The recent crackdowns also mean that ordinary Iranians face
increased difficulties accessing the internet and increased dangers from state
According to Haifa University’s Shahvar, home-based
internet access is both extremely slow and hard to obtain, with high-speed
connections reserved for the wealthy or those connected to the
Many ordinary Iranians use cyber cafes to get on the web, he
Cyber cafes have another advantage: with the regime controlling
home internet access and having the ability to track users, the cafes provided a
safer, anonymous way for Iranians to criticize the government.
engaged in criticizing the regime would do so from home, because the regime will
find you,” Shahvar added.
However, in January the Iranian authorities
introduced strict new rules under which cafes must install security cameras and
surfers must register personal information – including ID and phone numbers –
which will be held on file for six months.
The internet cafes themselves
must compile dossiers of IP addresses and URLs of every website a customer
Even before the crackdowns, though, cyber cafes were not
completely safe, and there is plenty of evidence that Iran carries out
surveillance against internet users.
Last summer, analysis by security
company Trend Micro showed that compromised web security certificates from Dutch
company DigiNotar were being issued to Iran and used in a “man-in-themiddle
attack” to intercept Iranians’ email data on the usually secure Gmail
US-based non-profit advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran
(UANI) says Iran also conducts surveillance against web surfers with
sophisticated technologies purchased from international
Earlier this week, UANI slammed Chinese telecom giant ZTE for
selling an advanced surveillance system to Tehran, which it says enables the
Islamic Republic to monitor citizens’ voice and text messaging as well as
UANI spokesman Nathan Carleton told The
Jerusalem Post that companies like ZTE risk contributing to human rights
violations in Iran.
“Any responsible company should pull out of Iran and
eliminate the possibility of the regime misusing its technology to track,
monitor, and oppress dissidents,” he said.
With foreign news and
political sites blocked, the Iranian regime is free to use the internet for its
own propaganda purposes.
In a move that reflected Tehran’s fear of the
internet, this week the Mashregh website, which is closed to the intelligence
services, slammed the “Israel Loves Iran” Facebook campaign as “Israel’s new
spiritual war against Iran” and said it was “written by the Israeli government
as part of a psychological operation against Iranians.”
an editorial comparing the internet to narcotics and sex addiction and
illustrated by a picture of a woman imbibing cocaine from a large Facebook
The Islamic Republic also employs more frightening tactics to deter
web users from criticizing the regime.
In January, the Supreme Court
confirmed the death sentence of Canadian Iranian web developer Said Malekpour,
convicted of “insulting the sanctity of Islam” and “agitation against the
Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court also sentenced his
co-defendants, IT student Vahid Asghari and web developer Mehdi Alizadeh, to
Ahmad Reza Hashempour, a website administrator, was sentenced to
death for “membership in anti-religion and blasphemous websites” after four
years in solitary confinement in a Revolutionary Guards prison.
response to the Iranian regime’s increasing efforts to crack down on internet
communications, the US has stepped up its own attempts to facilitate Iranians’
access to the World Wide Web.
Last week, the US Department of the
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued clear guidance
regarding permitted software exports that would help Iranians access the web,
including free chat programs like Skype and Google Talk.
the crackdowns have worked and said that events like the 2009 “Twitter
Revolution” would be hard to carry out today.
Now there are signs that
Iran’s efforts to quash internet use have extended beyond the Islamic Republic’s
This week, US and European security officials told Reuters that
Tehran is providing technical assistance to Syrian President Bashar Assad
designed to disrupt protesters’ efforts to communicate via social
Despite this bleak picture, Shahvar says he remains optimistic
that the Iranian people’s desire for freedom will eventually
Shahvar runs Haifa University’s TeHtel iniative, a
Persian-language site designed to help Iranians understand more about Israel
“after decades of mind-twisting propaganda,” and says that despite internet
restrictions and the consequences of punishment, ordinary Iranians are brave
enough to pay regular visits to the site.
“Every website can be blocked
by the regime, but we need to do our best. We can’t just sit here and do
nothing,” he said.