After being blindsided by widespread protests last summer, Iran's paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps resolved to cut off the reformist Green Movement's social networking resources. In October, Tose'e Etemad Mobin, a company controlled by the Guard, acquired 51 percent of Iran's major telecommunications firm.
During protests last month to mark the anniversary of Iran's Islamic republic, the Revolutionary Guard was able to handicap demonstrations with a nationwide shutdown of Internet and cell phone access. After being scattered into smaller groups, unable to spread word of their organizing destination or warnings about arrests, the opposition became an easy target for thousands of riot police.
But while the Guard's cyber-dominance proved effective at helping to tamp down the protests, outside observers question whether such measures are economically sustainable or technologically feasible. Iran has a more tech-savvy populace than other regressive regimes, like North Korea, which cybersecurity consultant Greg Garcia argues will help undermine the government's ability to sustain a pitched cyberwar against its own people.
"I think it's a fool's errand, and they're doing it more for a show of force," said Garcia, who served as the Homeland Security Department's assistant secretary for cybersecurity in the Bush administration. "They have a very sophisticated populace that could be instrumental in setting up an underground wireless network of proxy servers to get around firewalls and other restrictions. I would think efforts to stop all that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars."
Although the IRGC was originally created as the military of the theocracy, since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad it has become a political and economic oligarchy that rivals the government, explained Rand Corp. international analyst Alireza Nader. "The Revolutionary Guard can't jam Iran's communications indefinitely, since the government also relies on the Internet and the costs would be prohibitive," Nader said. "However, I also believe that the Guards do not want competition in the telecommunications field, or any economic arena for that matter."
One key competitor is Google's Gmail -- which was shut out the day before the Feb. 11 independence anniversary in another effort to prevent protesters from organizing. Since then, the regime announced it was part of a plan to replace foreign sites with a national e-mail server. Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, said this move could indirectly bolster the Green Movement if it pesters the Guard into limiting more communication.
"If you shut down Gmail, protesters will use Twitter, and if you shut down YouTube, then protesters will use Vimeo, and then they'll have to go down the line," said Shirky, also the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. "And to replace these sites with a national e-mail service, they would need world-class talent that they don't have."
Already, protesters are using proxy server software like Freegate to gain access to the Internet from an international connection. Shirky said that as the Guard tightens its grip on communications, limiting access to phones is a much larger liability. "You can't be an advanced economy if people can't use their phones," he said. "They shut down 90 percent of their own network and daily life grinds to a halt."
Censorship and the use of police has long been a part of Iranian life, but Thomas Mattair, executive director of Middle East Policy Council, said this has accelerated beyond traditional levels since last year's election. "It's not just reformist but also conservative papers are being shut down," Mattair said. "They're not even tolerant of minor criticism, and there are reporters and editors that don't like Ahmadinejad that still support [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] who are being arrested."
Reza Aslan, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, argued that if restriction of phone and Internet use increases, then the damage to the economy will turn people against the Revolutionary Guard.
"The merchant class and business classes are already suffering from the atrocious management of the economy, and using more of these nuclear options of shutting down day-to-day operations of the country will make it worse," said Aslan, also author of How To Win A Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. "The government is willing to commit economic suicide to stop these demonstrations, which shows just how weak and rattled the government is by this movement that leaves them with so few options to stop it."
But for all the challenges to the regime, it has so far stood up to the protest movement and retains control of the world's third-largest oil reserves. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, said that while Iran has undergone an extensive "brain drain" of educated professionals leaving the country, the regime can still afford these expensive crackdowns.
"Even if oil prices crashed as low as they did last year, they could still sustain it," said Maloney. "I have no doubt the government will continue down this path at the continued cost to the freedoms people were permitted in Tehran before last June."
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