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Tehran's Lost Connection

Is the Iranian regime's cyberwar with the United States real, or a paranoid delusion?

During last year's election turmoil in Tehran, the Iranian regime's biggest foe often seemed to be 21st-century technology. While the regime cracked down on supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi -- the so-called Green Movement -- with decidedly pre-Web 2.0 tools like truncheons and tear gas, protesters used Twitter, YouTube, and other Web-based applications to publicize their cause, and the regime's brutal response, to the rest of the world.

A year later, however, Iranian dissidents' techno-euphoria is mostly a thing of the past. The regime's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) declared victory over the opposition this February, after the Green Movement's call for massive demonstrations to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution were effectively blocked by the regime's nationwide shutdown of both Internet and cell-phone access. The Greens, deprived of communications in a society where mass media are under complete state control, suffered a lackluster turnout, prompting some Iran watchers in Washington to (prematurely) declare the movement dead.

That period of triumph, however, seems to be a distant memory for Iran's hard-line leadership. Today, the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are obsessed with a more formidable foe in cyberspace: the U.S. government. The United States, the regime avers, is engaging in a cyberwar to loosen its own hold on power. Nearly every day, the state-run newspapers warn of Washington's well-planned strategy to overcome the Iranian regime's control of the Internet. "The U.S. military enters the arena of cyber wars in an organized manner," read a large headline carried by the Fars news agency on May 10. Kayhan newspaper, which distributes Khamenei's views, has accused the U.S. government of using Iran's Internet-savvy youth to launch a cyberspace "soft war" against the regime. "The target of this new American plan are the youth who use the Internet more frequently than older people and are easier to deceive," the paper reported.

The attacks sometimes verge on the obsessive. On April 20, Kayhan devoted an entire column to condemning Haystack, a program that uses sophisticated mathematical algorithms to allow users to circumvent government Internet filters and cover the tracks of their online activities. The paper called the program "a CIA plan." (Actually, it was these guys.) Kayhan also responded immediately to news of a conference in Washington convened by the Century Foundation (my employer) and the National Security Network on communications technology and dissent in Iran, declaring the event to be proof that the "CIA was stepping up its efforts for Internet freedom" in Iran and tarring its participants -- including me -- as American spies. Iranian authorities have warned that the "enemy" is gearing up in its Internet war to help protesters fight Iran's security forces this Saturday; the Green Movement's de facto leaders had suggested large protests that day, but released a statement today saying it was too dangerous to demonstrate on the the first anniversary of the disputed presidential election.

Why all the concern with an alleged U.S. government plot to overthrow the regime through cyberspace? Well, for one thing, the United States actually is mounting a number of efforts to liberate Iran's virtual society, even if those efforts don't quite amount to the fiendish plot of the regime's imagination. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech on Jan. 21, announcing a new Internet freedom initiative, in which she singled out Iran and China as the countries of most concern to Washington. "[D]espite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country," Clinton said. "And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice."

Iran is also aware of a little-known U.S. government fund established last year, called the Near East Regional Democracy Program (NERD), which is intended to fund technology initiatives to promote Internet freedom. President Barack Obama has requested $40 million from Congress for it, and the program enjoys broad bipartisan support. While the funds are not restricted to Iran, there is a movement in Congress to allocate the money specifically for the Islamic Republic. In Iran's eyes, NERD is reminiscent of the notorious $75 million pot of money that former President George W. Bush earmarked for regime change in Iran.

The program is still far from getting off the ground, however -- the U.S. government has yet to sort out how it would actually use the money if it received it, much less coordinate with the software companies that would be necessary partners in the endeavor. This delay matters: Anticipating a U.S.-led cyberspace attack, the IRGC is likely to deploy its most advanced technology to shut down Internet access, email, and cell-phone traffic ahead of the anniversary of the presidential election and the expected protests that will accompany it. So far, Washington has shown that it is acutely aware of the communications and other technological difficulties facing Iranian dissidents, but there is no sign that it has come up with a concrete response plan. If the opposition is waiting for U.S. help, it might be slow in coming.

AFP/Getty Images

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