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


Guilty Until Proven Guilty

The uproar over Israel's actions aboard a Gaza-bound vessel proves that the world holds the Jewish state to an impossibly high standard. For their own sake, Americans should think twice about joining this flood of international condemnation.

On the evening of April 28, 2003, a crowd of approximately 200 Iraqi civilians gathered outside U.S. Army headquarters in Fallujah to protest the occupation of their city. As tension grew, U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne stationed on the building's roof began firing upon the crowd, killing at least 13 Iraqis and wounding more than 70. U.S. troops insisted that they fired only to defend themselves from gunfire coming from the crowd. The protesters claimed that they were unarmed and never fired at the soldiers.

The odds are that you have never beaten your breast or searched your soul over this incident in Fallujah. In fact, you have likely never even heard of this incident. And the odds are that you have never heard of the tens if not hundreds of incidents like it, in which civilians have been killed as U.S. soldiers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

But the odds are overwhelming that you have heard -- repeatedly -- of an Israeli operation last week aboard a Gaza-bound ship in the Mediterranean. Israel's naval commandos, several of whom were beaten to within an inch of their lives, responded with lethal force, killing nine people.

The term "double standard" does not sufficiently capture this phenomenon. It's not just that the Israelis are being held to a different -- and immeasurably higher -- standard than the rest of humanity. Israel is now being judged in the absence of any objective standard whatsoever. As Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, it seems that Israel is now "guilty until proven guilty."

Sadly, it is no surprise to see angry mobs on the streets of Tehran or London calling for Jewish blood. It seems that we now must accustom ourselves to similar scenes playing out in Istanbul as well. Yet what is far more troubling is that we are now hearing these critiques being echoed right here in the United States. 

This is hardly the first time that my friends and neighbors have been strangely focused on Israel's alleged misdeeds. Many complained about the collateral damage in Gaza associated with Israel's 2009 Operation Cast Lead, intended to stop Hamas from firing thousands of missiles into its southern cities. Yet these same friends were completely unaware of the destruction wrought by America's armed forces in Fallujah less than two years after the April 2003 incident described above. The U.S. Army destroyed nearly one-fifth of the city -- and damaged far more -- in its effort to crush the insurgency that had taken root there.

Many of my friends are horrified by Israel's blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Yet these same people never once questioned the United States' blockade of Saddam-controlled Iraq throughout most of the 1990s. They have no idea that America's enemies protested the U.S.-led blockade of Iraq in terms almost identical to those they now use to protest Israel's blockade of Gaza. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the United States, for example, Osama bin Laden claimed that "more than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression [sanctions] imposed on Iraq." In 1998, bin Laden again cited the blockade of Iraq and the "over 1 million" Iraqis the United States had killed there.

Constructive criticism is fine and welcome. We must always demand that the United States -- and its allies such as Israel -- adhere to the highest ethical standards in the fight against terror. We must ensure that every possible effort is made to avoid civilian casualties. The U.S. military must never cease to treasure every single innocent life.

Yet the attacks on Israel from most quarters -- and the United States' increasing impatience with Israel, even as it fights a similar battle, with similar tactics, against a similar enemy -- go well beyond such legitimate critiques. The American public and its government should be wary of joining this chorus of condemnation. Americans should understand by now that fighting enemies who shoot from civilian areas and hide behind human shields -- or sometimes masquerade as civilians -- will often require that soldiers make difficult choices, and will inevitably produce mistakes. To the extent that we in the West blur the line between those fighting terrorism and the terrorists themselves, we help legitimize a standard that will boomerang back on ourselves. It already has. 

Early last month we had a startling reminder of where this flawed logic can lead. On May 1, a crude car bomb was discovered in an SUV parked in the heart of Times Square. The police later identified the prime suspect as Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani origin. In trying to figure out what had turned Shahzad from an upwardly mobile financial analyst into a would-be terrorist, commentators have focused on an email in which he complained about the killing of his fellow Muslims in Pakistan, Iraq, and Palestine and claimed, "The crusade has already started against Islam and Muslims with cartoons of our beloved Prophet." Elsewhere Shahzad noted a moderate Pakistani politician who had "bought into the Western jargon" of calling the Taliban and their allies "extremist."

The path toward terrorism begins with the erasure of moral lines. It starts with the equation of terrorists -- who seek to kill civilians -- with the armed forces who seek to stop the terrorists. It mistakes cartoons with corpses, collateral damage with intentional murder. It fails to distinguish between an errant missile and an intentional suicide bomb. It confuses the "extremists" with those who fight extremism.

As we Americans fight the war on terror, we must fight with our heads as well as our hearts. Americans must always demand the highest standards from their army and from those of allies such as Israel. But we should never validate the type of thinking that is the hallmark of the very enemies we pursue. Today Israel's soldiers are in the dock. But tomorrow it will be our own.