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Iran's spy agency finds voice in cyberspace

Oct. 10, 2012 - 07:18PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 10, 2012 - 07:18PM  |  
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TEHRAN, Iran A glimpse into the shadow world of Iran's main spy agency is now a click away.

In an unexpected display of outreach, the Intelligence Ministry now hosts a website with addresses of provincial offices, appeals for tips and anti-American essays that mock rising obesity rates, large prison populations and school shootings.

There's no mission statement on the site, but it appears part of stepped-up attempts by Iran's leadership to promote national unity and project its authority amid Western sanctions and international isolation. After protests in Tehran last week over Iran's slumping currency, the nationally broadcast Friday prayers tapped heavily into the theme of shared sacrifice in times of trouble. And on Wednesday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the sanctions as a "war against a nation."

The new website also fits into Iran's narrative of fighting a "soft war" in cyberspace against Western cultural and political influences. For more than a year, Iran's leaders have touted plans for a "clean" Internet that could presumably try to block Western content, but Web experts have raised questions about its technical feasibility.

"The ministry is going online to make its presence known to the Iranian public, especially the young who use the Internet," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. "This is basically a show of force."

What the new Farsi-language site, www.vaja.ir, lacks in innovation (mostly a simple list of stories and links), it makes up for in pure anti-American bluntness.

Click on "America from a Different Perspective." The list of shame includes the huge U.S. prison population, rising obesity, school shooting statistics, why supporters of euthanasia seek to "kill grandparents" and how giant chain stores such as Walmart are smothering small businesses.

Another essay claims the chief goal of U.S. economic sanctions is not to force concessions over Tehran's nuclear program, but to incite civil unrest. It specifically cites U.S. diplomat Jillian Burns, who set up Washington's first Iranian monitoring office in Dubai in 2006 and is currently the consul in Herat in western Afghanistan, where Iran has strong cultural and economic ties. There was no immediate comment from the State Department.

Tehran-based political commentator Hamid Reza Shokouhi sees the website the web name is the Farsi acronym for the Intelligence Ministry as part of a new image-building campaign by Iran's ruling system in the Internet era, which has left authorities in a constant struggle to block opposition sites and Western influences.

"Economic and military threats against Iran have increased. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to reduce the gap between the people and the ruling system," said Shokouhi. "The website is a move in this direction. This is a big deal."

It's far from the first time that Iran's leadership has planted its flag in cyberspace.

Websites have operated for years for Khamenei and others including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Farsi, English and Arabic. More than a dozen state-run and semiofficial news services also flood the Web around the clock.

"The leadership, particularly within the hardline elements of the Intelligence Ministry, has an obsession with the notion that Washington is coordinating a soft revolution to unseat the Islamic Republic," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Part of Iran's counterstrategy appears to be a kind of information overload in response to U.S. initiatives, such as the State Department's launch last year of a "virtual embassy" in English and Farsi that seeks to reach out to ordinary Iranians. The site was quickly blocked by Iranian authorities, but firewall bypasses such as proxy servers are widely used by Iran's young and tech-skilled population.

"There is probably an element of mimicry here as well," said Maloney. "The Iranians enjoy turning the table on Washington and imitating American tactics."

Last week, a U.S. broadcast oversight board accused Iran of jamming regional radio and television programming that includes the Persian services for the Voice of America and the BBC. And on Monday two days after the website was launched Iran's Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi claimed that Iran's secret services have the upper hand in the Web war with the West.

"The intelligence apparatus confronts enemy measures in the cyber front," the official IRNA news agency quoted Moslehi as saying.

The intelligence minister was at the center of one of Iran's most public political feuds. Khamenei last year demanded Moslehi keep the post despite objections from Ahmadinejad, who was so angered that he boycotted government meetings for more than a week. In response, the ruling clerics arrested dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies and left him politically weakened entering his final year in office.

A journalist at Tehran's moderate Shargh newspaper, Soroush Farhadian, interprets the new website as an effort by intelligence agency to gain its own voice.

"One of the objectives is to demonstrate its independent position rather than speaking through the semiofficial news agencies," he said.

There is also a potential for touches of candor amid the high-voltage propaganda. One article appears to buck the official line that sanctions on Iran's oil exports are meaningless. It notes Iran has "paid heavy costs" in its showdown with the West.

"On the one hand, Iran has faced problems with a cut in its main source of revenue. On the other hand, the West has taken all measures to force Iran to give up its nuclear program," the post said. "Despite all the costs suffered by the West to stop Iran's nuclear program, the Islamic Republic has continued its path and the West has failed."

Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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