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Iran ­ The Modern Tools Of Meddling
Terrell E. Arnold
Six weeks after Iran's presidential election the media still sputter with tales of vote rigging, and there are apparently some in western media who cannot let the story die without some final whimper. At the same time, opposition candidate Mousavi and his key supporter, the billionaire Rafsanjani, continue to challenge the hierarchy. But what are we watching? Die hard critics of the government would assert that we are watching the after the fact moves of the guilty engaged in covering up their crime. This may be the most talked about political "crime" in decades, but no one so far has presented a corpus delicti.
The charge that the Iranian election was stolen has persisted by reiteration, but it has not been nourished by evidence. Rather in western media ranging from the Internet's Huffington Post to the Christian Science Monitor-neither billable as a rabble rouser-it has become conventional to refer to the "fraudulent" or "stolen" Iranian election merely in passing. It seems that the evidence is so fragmentary and speculative that the charge of election fraud appears to carry more weight when it is totally unsupported.
Even so, Iran's Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for an investigation to see if there were any discrepancies. To critics that sounds like capitulation, but Iranian leadership gains more politically from an investigation than it is likely to lose. It gains the passage of time. The equation is to keep the lid on long enough for the pot to cool. Revolutions-green or otherwise-are hard to sustain without accomplishments.
Without ignoring the obvious tensions that exist in Iranian society, a leading question is was there actually a "green" revolution in Iran, or was it a dispute between rival power clusters in the hierarchy, with the "revolution" mostly invented and promoted from the outside?
Brazilian Middle East observer and writer Pepe Escobar portrays the results of the June elections as something akin to a palace revolt. However, the Iranian political landscape appears more complicated than that.
The central operating system consists of roughly 400 leading players. The largest cluster is a Parliament of 290 that is elected every four years and has wide economic and social policy-making powers, but it can be overridden by groups around the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These include the Guardian Council of 12 who are the pundits on Islamic law and approve all candidates for high office, the so-called Expediency Council which seems to be a hand-picked group of advisers to the Ayatollah, and the Assembly of Experts-86 in number-- who seem to be charged with overseeing the Supreme Leader, but whose main function is a sort of College of Cardinals one of selecting his successor. All of these positions appear laden with perks any threats to which are likely to raise a storm. Real threat management, of course, is the task of the Revolutionary Guard whose nominal task is regime security but whose members now are involved at many levels.
In essence, the system combines the appearances and nomenclature of a modern system of governance with the habits of a traditional oligarchy. The religious overtones do not change that basic character. The abiding subjects are earthly power and real money.
There was a basic flaw in the way the "revolution" presented itself to the powers that be. Outsiders have criticized the government because it suppressed demonstrations, arguing that nonviolent protest is totally legitimate. Within limits peaceful demonstrations seem to have been tolerated by leadership and the police in Iran. Certainly large demonstrations for Ahmadinejad appear to have been tolerated, albeit not covered by outside critics. But the opposition demonstrations, as shown on western TV, have included rock throwing, window and storefront breakage, and trashcan burning. That may indeed make better TV imagery, but such destructive protest activities are suppressed in virtually every country including the United States.
A second, perhaps more fundamental flaw was in the opposition approach. Though the oppositionists were ostensibly trying to switch immediate leadership, the protests directed against the present government appeared as if the goal were to overthrow it. That image particularly was added by the interventions of outsiders. That alone invited a pattern of polarization and confrontation that just as easily turns off people who would support nonviolent opposition.
Mir Hossein Mousavi did not handle this aspect of his support to best advantage. His opportunity, at best, was to effect limited change within an established political framework. Had he used his support groups-assuming he actually had some control over them-to deliver a massive pattern of controlled (peaceful) opposition, to critique policies or to promote specific reforms he could have used those resources far more effectively, perhaps even to modernize the Islamic Republic at least a little. As it turned out, however, experienced observers of the Iran political scene predicted that the political yield of recent protests will be a retreat into greater conservatism. That may overstate the situation, because it is by no means clear how much liberalizing would have occurred under rule by Mousavi under the clerics as opposed to Ahmadinejad under the clerics.
The Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran's Guardian Council face some difficult choices. While billing itself as an Islamic Republic, Iranian leadership has been facing an order of elitist opposition activity that essentially ignores the Islamic part of the name while posing basically secular challenges to it. The combination of students, academics, international business people-- the English-speaking elites-who have supported Mousavi has taken an approach designed to reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the Islamic overtones of Iranian governance. For better or for worse, that represents a fundamental threat to the leadership provided by Khamenei and the hierarchy that surrounds him in the present government.
Mousavi's problem was that without some real "reformist" agenda he had nothing to offer. But while his agenda appeared to promise increased, if unspecified, degrees of freedom to the elites, it did not actually offer anything to ordinary Iranians who in fact may have gotten a great deal less out of such change. The financial rewards of a Mousavi win most probably would have gone to his elitist, Internet connected base and his hierarchical support. Without the populist, distributive practices of Ahmadinejad, whatever their flaws, ordinary Iranians appeared likely to be ignored and, indeed, could have been worse off.
For Iranian leadership, the principal lessons learned from these elections may have been mostly about the players, the extent and nature of outside meddling, and the order of discontent within Iranian society. The diverse new tools of communications technologies-especially cell phones and videocams and the Internet's FaceBook, YouTube and Twitter-manifested themselves in this election more than in any other of record.
What emerged in the situation were novel opportunities and maybe some novel cyber applications of electoral interference. Certainly FaceBook and Twitter were in constant use. An estimated third of Iranians had Internet access, so all one (Iranian or not) needed to get involved in the runup, the demonstrations and the post election protests was access to the Net and a laptop or other digital communication device.
Chinese leadership has been sensitive for some time about this type of external communication and political interference or networking. It has not closed down the Internet, but restrictions on it are abundant, spying is constant, certain sites are or may be blocked, and China has a growing cadre of Internet police.
In dealing with the June 12 elections and subsequent experiences, Iran officials are reported to have monitored emails, and they probably authorized broader cyber surveillance. There are practical reasons why that would commend itself to the hierarchy and to the serving government. In effect, the Internet proved to be a major vehicle for external meddling in Iranian affairs.
Former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter notes ( see: "The Iranian Elections and Energy Security" in Energy Intelligence, June 19, 2009) that the US State Department runs a program known as the "Alliance of Youth Movements" which uses FaceBook and other Internet avenues for "planning and implementing covert action against Iran" The Zionists, who view Iran as the next significant Middle Eastern challenge to exclusive Israeli regional power, have joined the US in conducting cyber warfare against Iran. The tools are tailor made for interfering in elections, but Ritter suggests the goal is and has been "regime change" in Iran.
No thorough appraisal of the impact of the Internet on national political processes has yet been done, certainly not of such uses of cyber warfare. However, the June 12 Iran elections provide a good place to start, mainly because before this election the tools were neither so well developed nor so widely available. For several years moreover, Iran has been systematically targeted by both the United States and Israel for harassment, leadership change or absolute regime change.
The tools of cyber interference appear to have been added to covert operations already being conducted along Iran's border with Iraq, an exposed Iranian flank that runs all the way from northern Kurdish territory to the Persian Gulf. The US also is reported to have worked with Iranian exiles, as well as dissident groups such as MEK and the Sunni Jundallah fighters in the Iran/Pakistan frontier region.
Parties both in and outside Iran were busy on the Net during the elections and subsequent protests. A striking example of what is possible was an article on one website in which the author, an Iranian exile, suggested it was time to promote a general strike. That was necessary, as the writer saw it, to keep the revolution alive. The piece was not addressed to any specific audience. Had the idea been floated in a telephone message or an email to specific recipients in Iran, the recipients could have been in trouble, but lying loose on the internet, it was "found" policy. There is simply no way to know how widely this suggestion may have been read. Such are the types of cyber interference that could incite a Chinese scale of Net paranoia in Iran.
Ritter refers to such cyber activity as Obama's "digital democracy gambit". However, it is evident that the programs of this gambit are not reserved exclusively for Iran. Moreover, if the United States can play such games, so can any other government or any individual or group with modest amounts of hacking skill, equipment and an urge to interfere.
The effect of official uses of such programs is corruption of the Internet. The corruption builds with either defensive or offensive moves on the Internet. Targeted countries react to such abuses or hacking of the Net with a growing pattern of tinkering with the Internet itself to avoid interference. Spying has become so commonplace that it probably is smart simply to assume that someone is looking over your shoulder, no matter who or where you are.
The Net always has been an informational flat earth due to lack of discipline and frequently poor vetting of information postings. Offensive or defensive official gaming by governments would further undermine the reliability of information on the Net.
By behaving in the ways suggested by the Alliance of Youth Movements and the "digital democracy gambit', the United States Government has abandoned its responsibility for protecting the integrity of the Internet. Instead, along with other governments, it has become a political abuser. Iran's Islamic Republican government may have been the immediate victim, but in the end those attacks are against all users. The modern tools of Internet meddling are both pervasive and globally destructive.
Several dangerous attributes of cyber meddling became immediately apparent. In the environment of the Internet national boundaries are not effective, either at stopping or limiting information flows. In the case of Iran, key pieces of data, ideas, strategies, countermoves, etcetera did not need to flow in messages between individuals; they could just be posted on known and even covertly advertised sites and consulted anonymously. It is hard either to identify someone or to charge them with a crime for lifting an idea off a website.
The advocates of cyber interference may argue that the first benefit of the game is the advancement of human rights. It is indeed arguable that opponents to the party in power have a right to use whatever information they can find. In the Iran case, however, complex external motives were involved in the effort to overturn present authority and change the regime. Shutting off alleged Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and turning off Iranian support for pro-Palestinian groups (Hamas and Hezbollah) were among the external motives, and it actually did not matter to the meddlers where the Iranian public stood on these issues.
In short, Iranian national sovereignty was the immediate victim of the cyber assault. The exposure of political regimes to increasing orders of interference via open transborder communications will be the result. While the United States appears to have used these tools to cultivate regime change, it is undoubtedly making every effort to prevent such interference in internal US affairs.
But the Net is a two-way street; one cannot have it both ways. With the two-edged tools of Internet communications and with a determined US leadership view to interfere anywhere that seems to be in US interest, the cyber universe is not merely corrupted but cancerous. Unless the major powers are willing to take up the task of keeping this unique information system clean, the most powerful tool ever invented for promoting human understanding and accomplishment will become increasingly corrupt.
The irony of the situation is that any Iranian election is already rigged by the fact that the Mullahs decide who the candidates will be. That means anyone who wins has to behave within the established Iranian rules of the game. That is rigging of a very high order. Iran did not invent it. Others (Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia for examples) do it with a lot less fuss.
It is not clear that this was understood by Mousavi's followers. The so-called "green" revolution may well have called on him to do things he actually had neither intended nor promised to do, and which the Mullahs would not have let him had he tried. In this regard, especially outside Iran, appearances counted for a great deal. In that milieu Mousavi was a "reformist" whose reformist intentions could not be realized. That, indeed, was the electoral theft.
What emerged most strikingly in this Iranian election experience were both the manner and the subtlety of the modern tools for attempting to influence an election. In the past, American, British, Russian, French and other efforts to influence other country electoral decisions depended on covert tools of one order or another. That often meant hands on covert operations of intelligence organizations and the uses of propaganda tools in third party or local print media or radio and TV channels as they developed. The chosen gambits involved everything from influencing selections of candidates and issues to covert support for a preferred candidate.
The Internet clearly has changed the equations. Where information is concerned, even the most repressive societies now have limited control at best over what information is available to people. Rumor today is an actual electronic mill. The combination of linkages, websites, blogs, emails, FaceBook, Twitter and accessing tools created a boundless information environment for attempting to influence the Iranian election without actually touching it.
Those capabilities pose enormous difficulties for authorities who may honestly seek to preserve the integrity of their electoral processes or to protect their information systems from abuse by actual or perceived enemies. The rate, intensity, diversity and content of Internet activity that occurred around Iranian elections may not be measurable. However, during this election and its aftermath more damage probably was done to the integrity of the Internet than to the centerline of Iranian politics.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at
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