Iran's War on the Internet

The Mullahs set out to suffocate Iranians with an internal, state-run web service.

“The pen is mightier than the sword” were the words of 19th century English writer Edward George Bulwer Lytton, but in the case of the Iranians, the Internet has proven even more powerful in battling a repressive regime. Perhaps that is why the Iranian government is threatening to limit Iranians to an internal, state-run Internet service that would minimize communication with the rest of the world.

In its ongoing “soft war” against Western ideas, influence and infiltration, the Iranian government announced plans to reconstruct a “halal,” or Islamically lawful network that would disconnect the country with the rest of the world, instead running a parallel Internet service that censors and blocks even the most mainstream sites such as Google.

Though experts say the initiative to completely ban broad Internet service across the entire country appears too difficult and daunting a task for any government, the option of a twin network system is entirely feasible and has been implemented by other governments.

The Internet has been an integral part of Iranian society for decades, embraced by a large population of young, educated and curious Iranians looking to connect to and learn from the rest of the world.

The role of the Internet became especially apparent in the freedom movement that followed the disputed Iranian presidential election of 2009.  Protesting and marching did little good as the government, fortified with hired Basiji militiamen, brutally and successfully cracked down on dissenters. Unprecedented violence coupled with strict media censorship begged for new forms of resistance. The most effective fight came through blogs, articles, Facebook and Twitter, surpassing the ability and access of journalists and commentators in sharing the opposition’s stories and experiences.  Well aware of the range and potential of the Internet and tech-savvy Iranians, the government began by blocking Facebook, Google, and Yahoo days in advance of the Election.

The “soft war,” one against ideas and ideologies, particularly those imposed by the United States, was launched by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the fall of 2009, shortly after government suppression of the post election uprisings.

"Presently the fight against the enemy's soft war is our main priority," Khamenei was quoted as saying by English-language Press TV on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Basij, Iran’s brutal paramilitary militia. "As long as there is Basij, the Islamic republic will not face any threat."

Khamenei’s government declared the war to combat both the social media advances that the Iranian people had made during the time of the uprisings and, likewise, a parallel “intellectual war” fought by the Iranian people who found it more effective to fight seated behind a computer screen rather than risk putting themselves at the mercy of hired mercenary men.

Over the last decade, Iranians have flooded the Internet with powerful blogs, opposition websites, underground media outlets, news articles, videos, music videos, rap and poetry expressing their deep and widespread disenchantment with their government.

In tackling this threatening foreign ideology, Khamenei defined the government’s line of defense as a "mixture of cultural means and advanced communication equipment to spread lies and rumors and cause doubt and divisions among the people."

“Lies and rumors” and "doubts and divisions” have been pervasive tactics used by this government in splintering the opposition. Diversions in the form of political sideshows within the regime or meddling in foreign affairs (such as the current Iranian influences in Bahrain and Syria) are used to derail and distract the Iranian people from organizing and uprising.

Yet, there is a fascinating resilience about the Iranian people that keeps them fighting back. Maybe it’s life under an authoritarian theocracy that suppresses the most basic rights that compels them to remain politically engaged and emotionally resolute to beat the system.

Only days after the Iranian regime announced plans for a limited network, an anonymous group managed to penetrate the government’s mail server copying more than 10,000 internal emails.  The group, also called Anonymous, successfully hacked the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ server, retrieving mostly passport and visa applications. Though the content was not ultra sensitive, the group, which began its cyber hacking attacks against the government in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed Iranian election, was hoping government reaction to the incident would be to the contrary.

The documents are now available on multiple websites, meant to showcase the group’s victory while revealing weaknesses within in the government’s highly touted cyber army, the newest added division to the Iranian army which is given an estimated $76 million (U.S. dollars) of the total $11.5 billion allocated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Iran’s brightest and most tech-savvy graduates are proactively recruited to join the Cyber Army, a front on which the government now must fight with its best trained soldiers.

In a 2008 assessment by Defense Tech, the regime’s competence in cyber warfare scored a 4.0 out of a scale of 5.0.  The evaluation found that the Iranian government had significantly invested in and advanced its cyber-warfare weapons and agenda.

The hacking of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website came at an ominous moment, less than a week before the two-year anniversary of the 2009 election uprisings.  While it is still uncertain what, if any, plans have been drawn up by the opposition to mark the anniversary of the movement, it is clear that the designation and characterization of “warfare” has drastically evolved for both the Iranian people and their aggressors.