In Other Words

Iran's Hidden Cyberjihad

Taking a cue from the Soviets, the regime is creating a new Iron Curtain -- online.

To the untrained eye or the rushed glance of a tourist, there is an eerie calm in Iran right now. And Iran's brutal rulers have done everything imaginable to turn us all into tourists -- at best -- when it comes to reading the events of the country's tumultuous last year.

In this and so many other ways, Iran's mullahcracy inevitably recalls the latter days of the Soviet Union. But -- at least until the very end -- the Soviet censors could clamp down with brute force on the spread of information so that foreign journalists simply didn't know what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. They had it easy: no Internet. The journalism-hunters in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran must cope with a world in which information spreads freely, where satellite dishes are everywhere and more than 22 million Iranians use the Internet. To keep up, the embattled government has done everything in its power over the last year first to stanch the flow of stories and then to make the stories that inevitably leak out impossible for outsiders to verify. It has managed to erect, if not a sturdy, leak-proof wall like its Soviet forebears, at least a confusing and ever-adapting smokescreen.

Iran employs a vast and sometimes invisible army of paid minions and ideological myrmidons to help frame every question in the public domain -- and even manufacture convenient "facts" to fit its claims. A major element of this is a massive and largely unreported initiative, which the government -- increasingly obsessed with fighting what the political organ of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Sobhe Sadeq, calls America's "soft power" -- refers to as the "Cyberjihad." The Iranian government has reportedly deployed 10,000 members of the Basij, its thuggish militia, in service of this "jihad." Western companies like Nokia Siemens have been selling Iran the technologies and the know-how needed to censor and control the Internet. The government's allies have carried out successful hacks on sites close to the opposition, including opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's site Kaleme, the site linked to reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, and dozens belonging to key dissidents in exile.

The Iranian government trains its cyberjihadists in everything from how to influence chat rooms to the "semiotics of cyberspace," according to a curriculum sent to me by a disgruntled regime member. The IRGC site Gerdab.ir features photos of demonstrators, seeking in effect to crowd-source surveillance. Since September, the IRGC has owned the telecommunications giant that controls all Internet access, cell phones, and social networking sites in Iran. But the story of Iran's cyberjihad has gone almost entirely unremarked in the Western media, despite its massive scale and relative effectiveness.

American journalists have also missed more mundane stories about the sordid state of Iranian society. Of course, there's always a risk in picking up unverified reports from inside a closed country, but the perils of completely ignoring those reports are great as well. Since last year, already draconian censorship laws have become even stricter. Book authors who had received their "permission to print" are now forced to reapply. There are increasingly egregious tales in the Persian-language media about Ahmadinejad's system of patronage, wherein millions of dollars are given away by his office to buy political support. Reports by an opposition site of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decision to stop an investigation of corruption charges against a top Ahmadinejad aide apparently never penetrated the U.S. media, nor did claims on the government's official site, Kayhan News, of at least $8 billion sent to foreign banks by masterminds of different Ponzi schemes during the last year. A travel ban on Simin Behbahani -- Iran's most eminent poet and a fearless fighter for the cause of democracy and human rights -- received scant attention. The gradual but inexorable destruction of the private sector by Ahmadinejad's harebrained economic policies has been all but ignored.

There is also strong evidence pointing to the continued vibrancy of the country's democratic movement that goes almost completely unnoted. Consider the culture war -- very much connected to the democratic opposition -- over the government's attempt to restrict music instruction and public performances. It has only led to a musical renaissance, a thriving underground scene that is producing fascinating -- and often explicitly political -- work in rap, pop, and a new hybrid folk-rock genre created by Mohsen Namjoo, called "Iran's Bob Dylan."

When New York Times reporter Nazila Fathi was based in Tehran, she reported on Namjoo's powerful music. Now with her and every other seasoned American journalist out of Iran, and with entry visas parceled out carefully to those least likely to file damaging reports, these cultural clashes -- and the broader political struggle they signal -- stay invisible. Which is just how Ahmadinejad wants them. 

Read on: "A Forgotten Civil Society," Azar Nafisi, Interview by Britt Peterson

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In Other Words

What We Got Wrong

How the media both overestimated and underestimated the Green Movement.

The spontaneous protest movement that erupted on the streets of Iran in June 2009 both amazed and baffled observers around the world. From the moment the first demonstrations broke out in Tehran after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the media (and I include myself in that epithet) had a difficult time grasping the meaning of what came to be called the Green Movement. Indeed, our very use of the semantically empty term "Green Movement" became a tacit admission that we had no idea who these people really were and what they really wanted.

Over the course of the last year, that movement has defied every simple categorization, which partly explains why it has been so easy to foist upon it our own ideological leanings, our own desires for Iran, in the hope that it would ultimately become what we wanted it to be.

If you are a conservative commentator with a belief in Pax Americana, like my friend Reihan Salam, the popular protests in Iran were an indication of "the unraveling of one of the world's most dangerous regimes … [and] the opportunity to build a real Islamic democracy," as he wrote on Forbes.com a few days after the Iranian election. If you are one of the liberal interventionists at the Brookings Institution, "Iran suddenly seem[ed] ready to throw off the shackles of the repressive theocracy that has ruled it since the 1979 revolution," as Daniel Byman wrote in Slate around the same time. If you are a Dick Cheney acolyte with neocon proclivities like John P. Hannah, writing in the Weekly Standard last September, the Green Movement was "the most viable option available for satisfactorily resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis short of war."

And if you are an Iranian-American writer like me, who lived through the 1979 revolution, then the Green Movement looked promisingly like the massive riots that toppled the shah three decades ago, as I wrote last June in Time magazine.

For most of us, the Green Movement was an empty vessel to be filled with our dreams. Its goals became our goals, its agenda our agenda. And so when it failed to do what we wanted -- when winter came and the demonstrations dissipated, the regime endured, and the opposition leadership seemed paralyzed -- we were quick to declare the movement dead and buried, as Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation and Hillary Mann Leverett did in a controversial New York Times op-ed in January. Flynt Leverett had always viewed the Green Movement as a distraction from his decade-long quest to convince the U.S. government to engage the Iranian government in dialogue instead of hastening its decline. Indeed, he seemed positively giddy about the movement's apparent failure in a February interview with PBS's NewsHour. "There is no revolution afoot in Iran," he told host Margaret Warner.

Leverett was by no means alone in this assessment. By February, Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush who coined the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations," renounced his own expectations for the Green Movement, calling its leaders "more accidental and reactive than heroic and visionary, more Boris Yeltsin than Lech Walesa" in a Washington Post column.

By spring, the media in general seemed to have forgotten the movement altogether. Given its early overreach, this may have been inevitable. Once it became clear that what we were watching was not the dramatic overthrow of a dreaded and dangerous regime, but rather evidence of the slow decline of that regime's legitimacy, it became difficult to sustain attention. Without a steady stream of vivid images pouring out of Iran -- young, green-clad protesters waving peace signs and being pummeled by Iran's brutal security forces -- news outlets moved on to more urgent matters: dead pop stars and boys trapped in balloons.

But there is just as much reason to believe that the memory of last year's struggle will reinvigorate the Green Movement as there is that the movement will fade into history as just another failed attempt to challenge the hegemony of the Iranian regime. Either way, perhaps it's best that we keep our prognostications to a minimum.

I myself will keep to that advice, with this one gentle reminder: The revolution of 1979, which I remember so vividly, began with popular protests that erupted in 1977. So maybe it's a bit early to ring the Green Movement's death knell just yet.

Read on: "Iran's Hidden Cyberjihad," By Abbas Milani

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