The internet is a threat to the security of the Islamic Republic, and the country will become increasingly vulnerable and unstable if people continue to use it, government officials have claimed.
Speaking to the authors of a new study published in the National Defense Strategic Management Studies quarterly journal, government security experts highlighted the dangers of social media in particular.
The research comes as internet and digital experts and parliamentarians anticipate that a controversial new law will be brought into law as early as March 2022.
The study, "Examining the future trends of social networks and its impact on national security", predicts eight scenarios and indicates that Iran will be put at risk by systemic failure to address internet security, including through adequate regulation, policy, governance and service delivery. The infrastructure is extremely weak, compounded by flawed technical and private sector management, and this neglect led to the current instability and will shape future instability, the experts said.
They added that some individuals within both the government and the Shia religious leadership had sought to influence the way internet security had been managed, applying pressure on government officials that also posed a potential risk.
"This qualitative research has been compiled using reliable methods to assess the future, such as interaction analysis and scenario planning for the statistical population of Tehran, and and is based on the opinion of experts,” the journal states.
A Chance for the Government to Deliver a Robust, High-performing Internet
The study is explicit in its warnings about opportunists using Iranian peoples’ dissatisfaction —with the government, politics, the dire state of the economy, and mounting problems throughout all sections of society — to undermine security.
One of the scenarios the study sets out is Iran developing a strong, well-managed “intelligent” internet infrastructure with “high productivity," in which the private sector will be “semi-active” and involved. In this scenario, as more and more people go online, greater aspects of society will be hosted there, and the “content produced will be of good quality” and deviate less from what the rulers of the country want its population to access. This will be driven by a growth in native software, the authors of the report say, and the internet service sector will both be designed and implemented in line with government policy and meet people’s needs. The services they require will be delivered in a more secure environment.
But the experts interviewed for the report identify a problem with this scenario: that the private sector won’t really be very active and involved, meaning there will be a need for foreign capital to drive the progress.
If these favorable conditions cannot be met, the report says, the country will be presented with another scenario altogether.
The Path of Foreign Intervention
The alternative scenario sees infrastructure being mainly developed by foreign companies due to poor domestic technical management, a powerless private sector held back by heavy regulation and lack of government support. Domestic business would be unable to compete with foreign companies.
"The maximum presence of foreign companies and investors will pave the way for influence in the country's internet infrastructure and in critical areas," the report says. "Dependence on foreign companies will direct and design a roadmap for the country's cyberspace infrastructure based on the foreign-managed model.” In this environment, the authors write, the domestic “national information network will be practically meaningless."
At the same time, any foreign interest would need a secure return on their investment, a goal hard to achieve in an environment of tightened security and ever stronger judicial and regulatory institutions.
"In this scenario, it is not possible to properly implement infrastructure development due to poor technical management,” the study states. The authors highlight that an “unregulated exploitation of users’ data” and a disregard of privacy could lead to greater “social, cultural, political and ideological crises.”
Despite efforts costing tens of billions of tomans, the government has struggled to manage and monitor how people in Iran use and access the internet and social networks. As a result, political, security and religious institutions in Iran have become increasingly concerned about the threats they pose, and what impact the growing number of people using these services can have.
As a recent briefing by freedom of expression organization ARTICLE 19 sets out, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) which is under the control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, regulates the purchase of bandwidth from international providers. But the organization, citing ZoomIt, says that “since Ebrahim Raisi took office as president in early August, the SCC has not issued permits for the purchase of bandwidth from international providers.”
Cue the “User Protection” Bill
After failing to launch a successful "national internet,” an endeavor to cut the Iranian people off from access to the global internet, Iran's politicians have tabled a bill to ensure a wide range of restrictions would be enforceable in law.
The controversial “Protection of users' rights and basic services online bill,” currently being pushed by a number of parliamentarians, has faced widespread criticism. So far a million people have signed a petition against the bill.
The wide range of objections is proof of just how complex and multi-layered the issue of internet freedoms and restrictions has become, and how difficult it is for government and parliament to legislate for it, just as social media becomes the natural home for criticism of the government and the regime.
And there’s a major contradiction at play: while the government seeks to restrict people’s online freedoms as much as it can, it has fostered a retaliatory movement, deploying hackers and groups of people to disseminate spam and electronic viruses to attack anti-Islamic regime content and social media activists.
An Issue Close to the Government’s Heart
The National Defense journal has looked at this topic several times before. In 2020, it published the "Study of the impact of social networks on national security.”
That study, a precursor to the latest report, found that the growth of social networks would make it almost impossible for the government to have control, or even meaningful supervision, over society and the Iranian people, and people’s continued use of the internet would widen the gap between society and the government. As social media became more a part of community life, “the independence and territorial integrity of the government” will be undermined, it said.
That study also pointed to threats social media posed to national security and warned that constant use of it would give "enemies" access to internal information and data, and allow dissidents to operate freely.
In the spring issue of 2021, the same quarterly published the study "Developing a Social Media Management Strategy with a National Security Approach", which listed the types of threats social networks posed, and put forth the rather understated opinon: "The nature of social networks and their impact on Iran's national security is such that, along with many opportunities, it can create many threats and insecurities."
All these studies serve to highlight again what the Iranian people know all too well: that the leaders of the Islamic Republic are obsessed with tackling what they see as the “problem” of social media and the internet.
As the recent ARTICLE 19 briefing sets out, steps are being taken to bring in the new law as soon as possible. At the same time, the organization says there is evidence that there have been “major slowdowns” in internet connections. “Some users have even been facing trouble accessing basic services like the Google search engine and email along with Instagram and Wikipedia,” the briefing states.
ARTICLE 19 also points out the Protection Bill will provide locally-developed services and platforms with financial aid through a specially-created "Fund for Supporting Local Key Online Services". The fund's mandate promotes "purifying" content to ensure it follows "Iranian-Islamic values" and invests in "cybercrime prevention techniques" — apparent euphemisms for the ushering in of censorship and surveillance tools and support of propaganda initiatives.
When it talks about threats to national security, the Islamic Republic government means threats to its ideology. If these “threats” are not addressed, it will continue its line of defensive, doing everything it can to protect what it regards as sacred, including destroying with force people that do not share its definition of security and stability.