Inside Man: Behind Tehran’s ‘electronic curtain’

Mullahs are intensifying internet crackdown with a newly formed agency, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prays 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prays 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
This month, 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 world.
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 protests.
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 regime.
That list includes Iranians living outside Iran, some of whom have reported receiving threats against their relatives in Iran, Shahvar said.
Ironically, Iran’s cyber police Persian website includes a recent warning that Google is invading users’ privacy and spying on them.
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 (SCC).
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 web.
Meanwhile, last month, Telecoms Minister Reza Taghipour announced that Iran planned to launch its own “national internet” by early June.
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 like Gmail.
The recent crackdowns also mean that ordinary Iranians face increased difficulties accessing the internet and increased dangers from state surveillance.
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 regime.
Many ordinary Iranians use cyber cafes to get on the web, he said.
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.
“Nobody 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 visits.
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 system.
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 companies.
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 internet communications.
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.”
Mashregh included an editorial comparing the internet to narcotics and sex addiction and illustrated by a picture of a woman imbibing cocaine from a large Facebook logo.
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 regime.”
Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court also sentenced his co-defendants, IT student Vahid Asghari and web developer Mehdi Alizadeh, to death.
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.
In 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.
Shahvar believes 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 borders.
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 media.
Despite this bleak picture, Shahvar says he remains optimistic that the Iranian people’s desire for freedom will eventually prevail.
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.