Foreign Policy | June 7, 2010
By Abbas Milani
Taking a cue from the Soviets, the regime is creating a new Iron Curtain — online.
To the untrained eye or the rushed glance of a tourist, there is an eerie calm in Iran right now. And Iran’s brutal rulers have done everything imaginable to turn us all into tourists — at best — when it comes to reading the events of the country’s tumultuous last year.
In this and so many other ways, Iran’s mullahcracy inevitably recalls the latter days of the Soviet Union. But — at least until the very end — the Soviet censors could clamp down with brute force on the spread of information so that foreign journalists simply didn’t know what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. They had it easy: no Internet. The journalism-hunters in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran must cope with a world in which information spreads freely, where satellite dishes are everywhere and more than 22 million Iranians use the Internet. To keep up, the embattled government has done everything in its power over the last year first to stanch the flow of stories and then to make the stories that inevitably leak out impossible for outsiders to verify. It has managed to erect, if not a sturdy, leak-proof wall like its Soviet forebears, at least a confusing and ever-adapting smokescreen.
Iran employs a vast and sometimes invisible army of paid minions and ideological myrmidons to help frame every question in the public domain — and even manufacture convenient “facts” to fit its claims. A major element of this is a massive and largely unreported initiative, which the government — increasingly obsessed with fighting what the political organ of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Sobhe Sadeq, calls America’s “soft power” — refers to as the “Cyberjihad.” The Iranian government has reportedly deployed 10,000 members of the Basij, its thuggish militia, in service of this “jihad.” Western companies like Nokia Siemens have been selling Iran the technologies and the know-how needed to censor and control the Internet. The government’s allies have carried out successful hacks on sites close to the opposition, including opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi’s site Kaleme, the site linked to reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, and dozens belonging to key dissidents in exile.