Regardless of the exact political course that ensues in Iran over the next decade, the opposition movement that gained momentum in the aftermath of the country’s 2009 election has already made its historical mark. Nicknamed the “Twitter Revolution,” the movement showcased young, zealous Iranians pioneering the use of citizen journalism and social networking sites in a significant standoff against the regime.
The clash emulated the same cat-and-mouse behavior that has become habitual between the people and the government of Iran. The government has a ban on alcohol, yet Iranians say it is easier to obtain vodka than water. Drug trafficking is punishable by death, but Iran has one of the highest incidences of drug use on the globe. Circumventing the censorship of Western music and movies, Iranians buy black market DVDs and download the latest songs and films off the Internet. A psychology textbook would call it forbidden fruit; Iranians call it life.
The “an eye for an eye” approach proved to be a tactical advantage for the Iranians during the protests. In a strict, dictatorial climate where journalists and any media coverage were banned by the government, a nation of citizen journalists emerged, eager to tell their stories to the world. As crackdowns became increasingly violent, factions of the opposition became more aggressive and courageous in taking on Basiji militants in the streets.
The government, frustrated by the effectiveness of the Internet in stirring the international response to post-election confrontations, unleashed its Cyber Army to infiltrate blogs, to arrest individuals because of content on their Facebook pages, to block access to major sites such as Yahoo and Google, and at times to shut down the Internet altogether. In retaliation, the opposition launched an equally aggressive cyber offensive, using proxy servers to access sites by bouncing connections off third party host sites, and penetrating major government sites.
A cyber hacker and political activist – who we’ll refer to as “Neema” – belongs to the Marze Por Gohar Party (Iranians for a Secular Republic) and reported that he and his constituents began hacking government websites two years ago. He said that the group launched its cyber war initiative in defense and support of opposition groups whose websites were being censored and hacked by government forces.
Neema’s real name has been withheld to protect his identity, but he spoke to FrontPage Magazine while on a trip away from his home in Tehran. Speaking on the telephone or emailing about the issue at home or in his office would put his life in danger.
“Civil disobedience includes cyber warfare. We have always believed in non-violent protest, and that means being innovative in using methods that will weaken this government,” Neema said. “If the Islamic regime is resorting to every tactic at their disposal to suppress people’s free expression, then we will do the same to their ideology and notions.”
Most recently, the MPG party claims they have hacked several governmental sites, including the Iranian Ministries of Energy, Intelligence, Islamic Enlightenment and Guidance, Research and Technology, Housing and Urban Development, and others.
Political activists and hackers like Neema live all across Iran and target different sites, he said.
Neema claims that he singlehandedly infiltrated President Ahamdinejad’s site, www.president.ir, which he admitted was the hardest site to keep down. He said it went offline multiple times for intervals under an hour.
A booklet of screenshots substantiates the work of Neema and his hacker-activist friends. Symbols of their victories on home-pages with images of the old Iranian flag’s lion and sword or messages such as “Dear user: this site is inaccessible,” make the attacks that much sweeter.
According to Roozbeh Farahanipour, founder of the MPG political party, who has resided in Los Angeles ever since his release from Towhid Prison for his involvement in the 1999 Tehran University uprising and who is in constant contact with party members, his own site has been attacked multiple times. Many of his activist friends have had their Facebook accounts hacked and on occasion, were sent cryptic messages warning them about posting anti-government messages.
The cryptic messages that they and many others, both in Iran and abroad, received via the Internet were probably sent from Iran’s hardline Cyber Army, created in 2008 to actively find and punish those expressing dissenting views online.
Iran’s military is made up of the Army, Air Force, Navy and a Revolutionary Guard force. The army is sectioned into armored divisions, infantry division, airborne brigade, Special Forces and the newly added cyber division.
It is estimated that $76 million (U.S. dollars) of the total $11.5 billion allocated to the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps is spent on cyber warfare. Iran’s brightest and most tech-savvy graduates are recruited to join the Cyber Army, a front on which the regime never imagined it would have to fight with its best soldiers in combat.
In a 2008 assessment by Defense Tech, the Iranian government’s offensive cyber capabilities scored a 4.0 out of a scale of 5.0. The evaluation concluded that Iran has significantly advanced cyber warfare weapons and that its cyber agenda is ambitious and disturbing.
Recently, Iran’s Ansar Hezbollah or Friends of Hezbollah Newspaper ran a front-page piece July 14, 2010 flaunting the Iranian government’s ability to combat nonconforming points of view on the web. They call it a battle “against old enemies using new strategies.”
Now, larger forces, rumored to be driven by the Americans or Israelis, have developed a new computer worm called Stuxnet, which has been reportedly been used to attack Iran’s nuclear programming. Stuxnet searches for industrial control programs and changes the code, relinquishing control of the site to the attacker. After speculation, researches believe the worm was exclusively designed to destroy Iran’s nukes; the most likely target, the nuclear reactor site at Bushehr.
As expected, Reza Taghipour, Iran’s telecommunications minister said that it had not caused “serious damage to government systems.”
Press Tv, Iran’s state media programming reported only a few days ago that the country is no longer facing the threat of Stuxnet.
Whether Stuxnet or any other cyber worm, we are just beginning to see the efficient yet perverse influences of cyber warfare. Whether this is the new face of political confrontation in the 21st century, or the only way to retaliate against a non-complying dictator, the world’s showdown against the Iranian regime has changed the face of political engagement forever.
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