Internet Warfare in Iran
Iran has just gone through another period of violent antigovernment protests a decade after the “Green Revolution,” when Iranians opposed to then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took to the streets to demonstrate what they viewed as widespread election fraud designed to suppress the opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi. One of the critical aspects of both of these episodes is the power of the internet through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to stoke opposition and support for those hostile to the Iranian government. It took over a month for the government to bring the Green Revolution demonstrations under control, and it was never able to fully reverse the impact that social media had on shaping opinion both inside Iran and around the world. A decade later, the Iranian government appears to have learned its lesson. While the organizers of the so-called Gas Riots last month — which were sparked by a government increase in gasoline prices — tried to exploit social media in the same way as in 2009, the response of the Iranian government was to shut down the internet immediately after the unrest began. This move cut off the oxygen to the protests inside Iran and starved potential supporters outside Iran of the kind of first-person point of view so effective in 2009. While the political and social ramifications of last month’s riots are still under way, one thing is certain — the internet has become a critical weapon in the broader war of ideas that is transpiring inside Iran today.
For five days in November, Iran was wracked by massive civil unrest triggered by the sudden decision by the government of President Hassan Rouhani to increase the price of gasoline to raise funds to support and sustain government subsidies for some 60 million Iranian citizens. The price increase, which ranged from 50% to 200%, when combined with the effects of an economy struggling under the weight of stringent US-backed economic sanctions, set off a wave of protests across Iran that quickly escalated from an expression of grievances against the gas price hikes to criticism of government economic policies and violent condemnation of the government itself. The reaction of the Iranian government was swift and brutally effective — security forces took to the streets in over 200 cities and towns across the country, violently dispersing demonstrators while shutting down the internet to disrupt the ability of protesters to organize and coordinate. While the initial reaction to the gas price hike appeared to be spontaneous, both the manner in which the demonstrations quickly took on an anti-regime character and the rapid coordinated response of the government indicate a level of preparation on both sides. These circumstances suggest that the gasoline price increases and subsequent protests of Nov. 15-20 were a crisis waiting to happen — one that quickly manifested and advocated the anti-regime policies of the US along with the popular grievances of segments of the Iranian people.
The gas protests thus appear to fit well with the US-backed effort to use so-called soft power capabilities to achieve the kind of decisive results normally attributed to classic military operations. Soft power represents the initial phase of the continuum of conflict, co-option versus coercion, not an effort to break an enemy’s will to resist per se, but rather change their way of thinking by seducing them with ideas and concepts that will have them realign their goals and objectives in nonviolent fashion — in short, to subdue an enemy without fighting.
In the post-9/11 era, the US has increasingly turned to the internet as a vehicle for soft power policies, targeting nations whose governments had been designated for regime change. In the case of Iran, the genesis for the present-day policies espoused by people such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Adviser John Bolton can be found in the work of a controversial joint-agency working group, the Iran-Syria Policy and Operations Group (ISOG), formed in 2006. While ISOG was disbanded in 2007, its focus on utilizing web-based social networking sites and applications as a vehicle for capturing and directing the activism of young people in repressive regimes was continued under the guise of a State Department-run effort known as the Alliance of Youth Movements, which, after President Barack Obama came into office in 2009, transformed into a focused effort known as digital democracy, a program which sought to weaponize the internet and mobilize dissent among the youth of a targeted nation.
The June 2009 presidential election in Iran provided the proponents of digital democracy with their initial opportunity to flex their muscle. Millions of dollars were invested in training and equipping activists affiliated with political reform movements inside Iran in order to mobilize political dissent with the tools of social media. The goal of energizing such dissent was a de facto form of regime change, voting incumbent Ahmadinejad out of office in the June 2009 election and promoting the candidacy of Mousavi. The role and influence of outside agencies in mobilizing support for Mousavi’s candidacy were well-known to Iran’s security services, who were listening in on the communications of the dissenters. Iranian intelligence services even infiltrated a US-funded gathering in Dubai, where computers and cell phones were distributed to Iranian activists along with instructions on how to produce and disseminate propaganda videos.
Prior to the June 2009 elections, the Iranian government had been on high alert for signs of a Western-style soft revolution. In the mountains overlooking northern Tehran, the government established a massive electronic listening post, where it monitored the mobile phone, satellite television and internet interactions of those that the US viewed as facilitators of digital democracy. The large-scale effort by the government to disrupt internet communications between Iran and the West during this time was driven by its insights into coordination between Iranian student groups and foreign agencies that were gained through intercepts of internet traffic intended to mobilize mass unrest in the aftermath of Mousavi’s electoral defeat.
The digital democracy effort went beyond trying to shape the election — the post-election protests that rocked Iran following the announcement of Ahmadinejad as the victor received a tremendous amount of attention in the West. This coverage was facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, allowing many protesters to get uncensored and unedited comments and imagery into the hands of foreign media outlets, which then made extensive use of this unfiltered information to promote the concept of a stolen election. The reality of digital democracy, however, is that it is a process that reinforces outside perceptions of Iran more than it changes actual circumstances inside that country. More than 10 years later, the narrative of a stolen election in 2009 was primarily driven by foreign media. It was largely false and heavily influenced by the internet posts from protesters inside Iran.
What the promoters of digital democracy failed to realize was that while the protests that followed the June 2009 Iranian presidential election were sincere and reflective of a genuine movement toward reform, the foreign-inspired digital advocacy that rode on the coattails of this angst was not. To the extent that the 2019 gas riots represent a continuation of the US-backed digital democracy policies of the past, the results are as revealing today as they were a decade ago.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This popular philosophical brainteaser is intended to generate questions about observation and perception. When applied to the November 2019 crisis in Iran, however, it touches on the critical importance of digital communications and connectivity when it comes to gauging the scope and scale of popular dissent against both the policies of the Iranian regime, and the regime itself. While the events of Nov. 15-20 are too fresh to have benefited from deep analytical assessment, a cursory examination of the social media activity by the protesters and their connectivity to news media in the West, suggests the same pattern as 2009, when anti-regime elements in Iran used digital connectivity at home and abroad to expand and sustain their efforts.
By shutting down the internet during the height of the protests, the Iranian government denied the organizers of the demonstrations the ability to gain traction both inside Iran and abroad. Starved of the kind of incendiary first-hand accounts and imagery that are the hallmark of popular-based social media, the narrative of the protests was, in effect, surrendered to the Iranian authorities. The brainteaser thus becomes: “If a protest takes place inside Iran, and no one is able to see it, did it happen?”