Iran’s Star-Crossed Regime; Pro- and Anti-Regime Hackers Accidentally Working Together?

The leadership of the Islamic Republic must feel like today emerged from the bygone era in which the rulers of Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies would only take action after careful consultation with their astrologers, for the stars aligned against them. The opposition has chosen 25 Bahman, which in most years falls on February 14th, for an annual protest which has forced the regime to crack down publicly for the second year in a row. February 14th is of course also Valentine’s Day, a holiday which the regime despises as a symbol of Western sexual mores. The Washington Post‘s Tehran correspondent, Thomas Erdbink, reported that restaurants in Tehran were heavily booked. Khamenei and his ilk are unable to prevent a dual challenge to their regime–one political, one social.

This year’s protest does not appear to have matched the magnitude of last year’s 25 Bahman, which saw major demonstrations and crackdowns, though reports from within Iran suggest that there were many arrests, enormous traffic jams, and occasional uses of tear gas. The regime pulled out all the stops in its effort to prevent the protestors from organizing. Many websites went down, including the popular Gmail; cell phone service was reportedly spotty. Journalists reported receiving e-mailed warnings of prosecution under national security laws, while there were rumors of text messages sent to warn people who had forwarded anti-regime messages. On the low-tech front, Basij checkpoints were reportedly demanding people hand over their cell phones so that their messages, pictures, and videos could be checked, and security forces were highly visible around the city (Tehran’s top prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, reportedly remarked that the whole mess, including the massive police presence, was because of a wave of shoppers preparing for Nowrouz in late March). Unsurprisingly, the government wasn’t the only one using technological attacks. Hackers reportedly took down a range of regime websites, including police webmail, Guard-affiliated Sepah News, and the website of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Interestingly, Ahmadinejad’s web presence wasn’t only targeted by the opposition. One of the most prominent pro-Ahmadinejad blogs, Super Enherafi (“Super Deviants,” after the “deviant current” epithet directed at Ahmadinejad’s faction by conservative rivals), has been replaced with a notice that the blog was removed due to criminal activity. Pro-Ahmadinejad news site Raja News (which in recent weeks suggested that the editors of the Guard-affiliated “Fox News of Iran,” Fars News, should be evaluated for mental illness) has also apparently gone down. Webpages affiliated closely with the Supreme leader, such as khamenei.ir and leader.ir,are apparently untouched.

I suspect that two cyber wars were fought in Iran today. In one, the regime’s opponents took down a range of pages associated with the regime. Most targeted the core–the police, etc. (and I am really hoping they managed to steal some email from the police, as the resulting gossip will be quite juicy!)–and the symbols of the regime, such as its media and its most visible figure, Ahmadinejad. Interpretation of the last target is difficult–savvy domestic hackers would know that Ahmadinejad is weak and likely see no reason to target him; non-Iranian international hackers probably don’t realize that Ahmadinejad is now only a quasi-regime figure and would thus be eager to hit him; Iranian hackers abroad might be wise to Ahmadinejad’s fall but still hate his guts.

In parallel to this, the regime prepared its crackdown on the dissidents, shutting down communication channels like Gmail, taking out VPNs and interfering with popular anonymity service Tor. In the midst of this, a subset of the regime, possibly close to Khamenei and Guard allies, used the chaos to strike a blow to Ahmadinejad. There is no other reason for them to take the actions they did–I have heard no credible reports of “deviant current” supporters working with the Green Movement, or of plans for a Deviant Day of Action also on 25 Bahman. The hacking attacks on Ahmadinejad’s website, which alleged anti-regime hackers claimed credit for, may have inadvertently aided the regime core’s long campaign to box out Ahmadinejad.

Unfortunately, today’s protests do not represent a critical challenge to the regime. The Green Movement does not command the loyalty of a majority of the population, and its supporters–even among the political elites–have little access to the levers of power. We may yet see life from them–and from the deviant current–when the regime rigs the Majlis elections in two weeks. However, without such an impetus, they’re out in the cold.

The greater danger to the regime is, in fact, Valentine’s Day. Khamenei and the others–and, across the Gulf, the al Saud–have good reason for their obsession with the holiday. Iranians (and Saudis) are increasingly educated and cosmopolitan. Their economies require increasing global contact. Khamenei may speak of building a “resistance economy” and society, but this is a hopeless aspiration. Iran won’t ever liberalize its economy or its society in a way that Westerners will find familiar. However, the natural and apolitical force of globalization puts tension on the Iranian system. The Green Movement is of course a product of this, given its strong support among the more liberal “new middle classes” that emerged with industrial modernization. However, deeper parts of Iranian society–the bonyads, the state enterprises, the Guards’ influence in the economy–are ultimately unsustainable in a world that rewards agility and internationalism. The regime’s backward social, international, and economic policies are intrinsically linked, for they all rest on a societal system that is unsustainable in the modern world. Khamenei must keep the world out of Iran, or fall, and he may be able to do so for many years, but the Islamic Republic as it is presently constituted cannot evade the forces of fate.

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