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Liberate ‘Zones of Electronic Repression’!
Islamists shouldn’t be allowed to use Western technology to crush dissent.


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Clifford D. May

‘The fax shall make you free.”

Albert Wohlstetter, the great Cold War strategist, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said that back in 1990. He was right: The advent of fax machines, photocopiers, and other then-cutting-edge communications technologies was an enormous boon to the free flow of information. In Communist countries, the Samizdat was transformed: Dissident self-publishers, who previously would sit at typewriters copying banned books page by page, could now, with the push of a button, create dozens of copies and transmit them almost anywhere.

Ever since, there has been not just the hope but the expectation that advancing communications technologies — personal commuters, the Internet, e-mail, smart phones, satellites, and the like — would inevitably spread freedom while constraining the power of the despots.

This just in: It’s not turning out that way.

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Instead, Iran’s rulers have been using high technology to break the backs of their domestic opponents. My colleagues Mark Dubowitz and Toby Dershowitz last weekend reported on tests conducted secretly by non-governmental technology experts revealing that Iranian security forces have the means to locate mobile phones in Iran to which encrypted messages have been sent — and to do it within minutes.

The theocratic regime has been increasing its ability to both monitor and control Internet activity within Iran’s borders. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei plans to go farther: He has ordered the creation of an “Internet oversight agency” whose mission will be to limit Iranians’ access to the Web. The Iranian chief of police, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, has called Google an “instrument of espionage.” A top Iranian intelligence official has called the Internet “a spy.” 

Bashar Assad, Iran’s Syrian handmaiden, also is escalating what Margaret Weiss of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls a “comprehensive crackdown” on Internet opponents. With assistance from both Tehran and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Iran’s foreign legion, “the operational tempo of the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has increased dramatically,” Weiss writes. SEA routinely “defaces what it perceives as hostile news and opposition sites, and has barraged Facebook pages belonging to no less than the European Union, President Obama, the State Department, Oprah Winfrey, Human Rights Watch, and Aljazeera with pro-Assad comments.”

On many occasions, Assad’s cyber police have shut down the Internet and mobile-phone reception in order to disrupt dissident efforts to organize, and send photos and videos to the media. They have been using technology to target victims, too. Weiss notes: “It is widely believed that American journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Homs thanks to Iranian software that pinpointed her satellite phone transmissions.”

But that software almost certainly was not developed in Iran. Dubowitz and Dershowitz write that a long list of foreign companies — Chinese, European, and even American — have been selling the Iranians “the technologies they need to make this oppression possible.”

The dissidents have not given up. Anti-government groups, including the Free Syrian Army, have a few friends abroad — friends who have provided them with high-tech work-arounds that they’ve been using to continue to communicate and organize. Such technology also has enabled refugees to flee to Turkey, avoiding government security forces that would arrest or kill them.

Much more should be done. Last month, President Obama denounced Iran’s efforts to erect an “electronic curtain” — a conscious echo of the “Iron Curtain,” Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union’s efforts to isolate nations living under Communism from the Free World. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. government had decided to send “technical assistance, communications assistance” and other “nonlethal aid” to Syria. But the aid is to go only to the “nonviolent, political opposition,” not to armed rebels who are the backbone of the resistance. What’s more, there appears to be no urgency to get even such modest initiatives underway.

Weiss recommends that the administration “take a cue from the European Parliament, which recently passed a resolution placing controls on the export of dual-use products, including those that can be used to violate human rights.” In Washington, Representative Chris Smith has sponsored a bill that would regulate the export of such technology.

Dubowitz and Dershowitz argue that “the entire Iranian telecom and technology industry should be blacklisted and closed to foreign companies unless they can certify to the U.S. government that any sales of technology to Iran will facilitate Iranians’ access to safe and open communications.”

They note that this “is the aim of U.S. legislation that Senator Mark Kirk is looking to introduce as an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill currently under consideration in the Senate. Congressmen Ted Deutch and Robert Dold are working on introducing the same provisions in the House of Representatives. Western firms would be required to certify that they are not helping create and maintain Iranian ‘zones of electronic repression.’”

In a speech last June, Assad — who back in the 1990s headed the Syrian Computer Society — said that “the electronic army” has become “a real army in virtual reality.” That real army is now being deployed by him, by Iran’s theocrats, and by other dictators against those who dare challenge their power and frustrate their ambitions. It’s high time for America and Europe to stop helping those dictators — and to field an electronic army with a qualitative edge.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.



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