Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Iran takes fight to opposition online

Jon Swain

The Sunday Times, 14 February 2010

Iran’s clerical rulers, who succeeded in suppressing widespread demonstrations last week by blanketing Tehran with security, are escalating a cyberwar to combat the increasingly powerful role of the internet in mobilising their opponents.
Visitors to the website of the main challenger in last June’s disputed presidential election were greeted by an image of the Iranian flag and an AK-47 assault rifle. “Stop being agents for those who are safely in the US and are using you,” they were told.
Another prominent opposition site was sabotaged, the internet was slowed down and threats were made to close Google’s Gmail system and set up Iran’s own national email service, a move that would allow government surveillance of the net.
A group calling itself the Iran Cyber Army has claimed responsibility for hacking into both opposition sites. This is the outfit that brought down Twitter for several hours last December when huge antigovernment protests were shaking the regime.
In a controlled society with extreme censorship, where satellite television channels have already been blocked, opposition supporters have grown adept at harnessing new media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to communicate and spread images of demonstrations and unrest.
These sites have become the new battleground in a no-holds-barred cyberwar. While the government seeks to impose an information blockade by shutting down outlets perceived as supporting the opposition, overseas hackers are busy sabotaging government networks. Some 30m Iranians are believed to have access to the internet. A few months ago it was about 20m. The increase shows the hunger for information.
Although there is no admitted link with the regime to prove the Iran Cyber Army is an official group, the type of site brought down and the language used suggest it is connected to the government.
The opposition suspects it is a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the force that has played the key role in suppressing dissent.
“We do not know for sure but we all assume it is an offshoot of the guard, which has its own cybercrime unit,” one Tehran source said last week.
With so many opposition figures jailed, all independent newspapers closed and many journalists arrested, the internet is fulfilling the role of newspapers. Iran is holding 62 journalists in prison; three more were arrested last week.
It has hanged two men in public for alleged anti-government activities and sentenced nine more to death. The crackdown has left the opposition in permanent fear of arrest. Thursday’s failure to mount any significant protest while the government filled a huge square with cheering supporters has dented their morale.
The opposition had hoped that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, would be the high point in a struggle that has been going on since last summer in protest at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent election. “What is lost is a battle and not the war,” an opposition supporter said.
Iranian experts believe the government’s ability to stop the protests on Thursday has meant that both Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, and the system of clerical authority in force since the 1979 revolution are safe.
“After Thursday the supreme leader has got enough people to commit themselves that the system stands and he stands atop of it,” said Professor Scott Lucas of the University of Birmingham. “We are not going to see a move to change the system of ultimate clerical authority now.” Ahmadinejad’s position was much less secure, he added.
Having issued one of his most damning statements only a few days earlier, MirHossein Mousavi, the de facto leader of the opposition movement, remains under threat. There are rumours that his wife was assaulted during the protests and a number of his close advisers are languishing in jail.
Nevertheless, the regime has so far ignored calls from supporters of the president to imprison him and Mehdi Karroubi, his fellow opposition leader. The two men have promised to continue their crusade to bring down Ahmadinejad.
The government rally in Azadi Square, complete with Iranian flags and pro-government slogans, was carefully orchestrated to ensure its success. Supporters were bused in and given food. Many were government employees who were not paid unless they attended.
It was capped with Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Iran had started the process of producing 20% enriched uranium and was now a “nuclear state” capable of making its own weapons-grade uranium.
His remarks were an escalation of the nuclear crisis and will hasten western plans for tougher sanctions. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is in Qatar and Saudi Arabia this weekend to build the American case for new sanctions in meetings with key Arab and Muslim leaders.
She is expected to press Saudi Arabia to offer increased oil supplies to China to win Beijing’s support. China imports much of its oil from Iran and is seen as the last opponent of sanctions among the five veto-wielding members of the United Nations security council.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, will arrive in Israel today amid renewed speculation that the Israelis may be preparing for a strike on Iran.
Mullen is expected to urge Israel to hold off from attacking Iran and to give the new round of sanctions a fair chance. It could be imposed around the end of March, western diplomats said.
Iran, meanwhile, is braced for further protests. The next target for the opposition will be mid-March, a time of great public celebration.
Once more Mousavi and Karroubi will be encouraging their supporters to take to the streets. Once more, cyberwarfare will be part of the struggle. “I’m optimistic. I’ve lived in Iran all my life and I’ve never seen this much courage from the Iranian people,” Amir Abbas Fakhravar, an exiled Iranian dissident, said in an online interview given to FrontPage Magazine.
“This is their last chance for freedom and they don’t want to give it up.”