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Controlling cyberspace to control the people

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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

In a speech on March 21, the first day of the Iranian year 1400, Ali Khamenei said, “Unfortunately, the country’s cyberspace is not controlled. All countries in the world are managing their own cyberspace. It is not a badge of honour to let our cyberspace loose; cyberspace must be managed.” 

In his view, “foreign intelligence services are trying to undermine the June elections.” Iran’s supreme leader accused the organizers of making engineered choices or discouraging the people by intimating their votes will not improve the situation. Khamenei, as usual, is blaming the United States and Israel for the possible lack of participation of the people in the June 2021 presidential election in Iran.

The Iranian regime is in a volatile and shattering state. The leadership has therefore turned to a contractionary policy. Like any other dictator, Khamenei is trying to assemble his most loyal people to prolong its regime’s life and postpone its inevitable downfall. In the March 2020 parliamentary elections, his Guardian Council disqualified all candidates from far-flung factions, many still holding government positions, and formed a unified parliament from his close-knit coalition and allies.

He is now determined to nominate a completely loyal person in the presidential election in late June. He said that the next president should have faith in Velayat-e-Faqih (the supreme leader).

This election will undoubtedly be one of the riskiest for Khamenei. During the 2008 elections, a significant uprising took place. It shook the Iranian regime’s pillars due to the protest of former Prime Minister and presidential candidate Mousavi against election fraud and to remove Ahmadinejad from the ballot box. The new presidential election will occur when the two major uprisings of 2017 and 2019 have severely weakened the regime and isolated it domestically and internationally. According to Khamenei, cyberspace management is overseeing what endangers the system’s security and existence and, if necessary, disconnecting the Internet. Khamenei’s main fear is the formation of another uprising, which this time could be the one that ends the regime.

Despite the Supreme Leader’s concerns, Azari Jahromi, the Minister of Communications, disregarded Khamenei’s remarks about cyberspace control and said that censorship and filtering no longer work and are obsolete. Three days later, Salami, the Revolutionary Guards commander, spoke of “tightening cyberspace.” Thus the Revolutionary Guards entered the field of “cyberspace management.” The head of the IRGC, Mohammad Rasoolullah, announced on November 18 that the IRGC’s cyber division, consisting of 144 cyber battalions, was engaged in “increasing insight,” removing “ambiguities and lies of dissidents” in cyberspace.

Khamenei regards cyberspace as an obstacle to the regime’s electoral meddling. He acknowledges that the mullahs’ regime’s multi-thousand-strong cyber army has also failed miserably in the face of the presence of millions of Iranians in the antigovernment cyberspace activities. This defeat was demonstrated in cyberspace during the execution of young Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari on the domestic and international scene.

If Khamenei’s claim of a popular election was correct and concise, there was no need to make a mention of the threat of cyberspace. By doing so, Khamenei showed that he is in danger of being overthrown by the people and the opposition. “Cyberspace management” has now become a battleground between the Iranian people and the mullahs’ regime.

Yet, Khamenei’s decision shows that the campaigns of people seeking change in Iran are going stronger than the regime’s cyberspace. From Khamenei’s point of view, thousands of people in cyber battalions cannot solve the regime’s problems. It was the fear of resistance activities that had previously forced Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, to write to the Twitter director asking him to close the accounts of the Mojahedin (the sworn enemies of the Iranian regime): “Hello Jack. Twitter has shut down real Iranian users, including TV presenters and students, assuming they were part of an infiltration operation. How do you look at the real robots in Tirana who are advocating Washington’s propaganda program for regime change in Iran?”

Reza Farajipour, the successor of the regime’s cyber defense base, warned of the growing threats targeting the regime on State TV on November 30, 2020, saying: “We are a country that is exposed to more threats than any other country in the world. These days, we are facing a wide variety of new threats that, for example, are not at all comparable to the last five years. Threats have become more advanced and sustained, and there are new types of threats in cyberspace that have the ability to evade surveillance processes.”

Hamid Enayat

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