U.S. Helps Iranian Protesters Bypass Regime Censorship

Iran protests
AP Photo

Iranian opposition leaders said on Monday that protests against the regime are ongoing, with helpful assistance from U.S. initiatives to provide hardware and software that allows Iranians to bypass Internet censorship from their repressive government.

The Financial Times reported on Monday that the U.S. government stepped up its efforts to help Iranians bypass regime censorship after massive protests rocked Iran in late 2018:

The US-supported measures include providing apps, servers and other technology to help people communicate, visit banned websites, install anti-tracking software and navigate data shutdowns. Many Iranians rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) that receive US funding or are beamed in with US support, not knowing they are relying on Washington-backed tools.

“We work with technological companies to help free flow of information and provide circumvention tools that helped in [last week’s] protest,” a second US state department official told the FT. “We are able to sponsor VPNs — and that allows Iranians to use the internet.”

The US Treasury department has issued waivers for such software and services, despite the Trump administration’s imposition of swingeing sanctions when it withdrew from the 2015 international nuclear accord.

Canadian circumvention software maker Psiphon, which benefits from US government funding and a Treasury licence, said it recorded a 25 per cent jump in usage in January in Iran. Monthly usage of his app — which provides a private, secure connection for Iranians to manoeuvre through censorship firewalls to reach servers in the west — rose to about 3m users in the country of 80m, Michael Hull, Psiphon’s president and co-founder, told the FT.

Another Trump administration strategy was to pump more funding into the Internet Freedom Program established by the Obama administration to provide better Internet access to the people of repressive nations. Funding for this program was increased by 30 percent in 2018.

Iranian citizens are generally quite skilled at using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other workarounds to bypass regime censorship, and the outside world is getting better at pushing information through those cracks in the data dam. According to streaming service providers, millions of Iranians routinely consume content their theocratic rulers would ban.

The Iranian regime is not taking its loss of control very well. During moments of political crisis, such as the 2018 protests or the ones that began after the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet in January, the regime has a tendency to shut down Internet access entirely rather than trying to block dissidents from organizing online and getting information from the outside world. These heavy-handed tactics annoy millions of Iranian citizens and inflict heavy costs on an economy that already teeters on the edge of collapse thanks to mismanagement by the Iranian government.

Full Internet shutdowns might not even be effective at suppressing protests for much longer. The Financial Times noted inroads have been made toward “offline messaging,” which basically turns cell phones into walkie-talkies using their Bluetooth and wireless networking transmitters. In essence, the phones become hives of data transfer that do not need the Internet or mobile phone towers to talk to each other. It is a tactic that only works in cities with high densities of cell phone users, but the Iranian regime is most visibly nervous about protests catching fire in the big cities.

According to the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), protests marked by the Ukrainian airplane shootdown are very much alive, even though outside media coverage of them has waned. January 20 was an important anniversary for dissidents, marking the release in 1979 of Massoud Rajavi, the last political prisoner held by the Shah before the current theocracy came into power. The date has become an occasion to call for the release of political prisoners held by the Iranian government.

The NCRI is still working to identify the Iranians murdered by their government to suppress the 2018 protests – they are up to 724 out of an estimated 1500 so far. It sees the current protests as the continuation of an “uprising” that began in 2019, marking Tuesday as Day 68 of the ongoing movement against the regime.

The U.S. State Department on Friday announced sanctions against another senior Iranian official, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Hassan Shahvarpour, for his role in crushing the November protests by “overseeing the massacre of 148 helpless Iranians in the Mahshahr region.” Such actions can serve as a constant reminder to Iranians who consume overseas media that their government perpetrated criminal atrocities against them, and is ready to commit more.

Iran expert Ali Mozaffari of Australia’s Deakin University wrote a piece at Radio Farda over the weekend arguing the regime went into a tailspin after IRGC Gen. Qasem Soleimani was eliminated by a U.S. airstrike in January. 

Mozaffari thought it was a bad sign for the regime that they could not rally Iranians around the image of Soleimani as a “savior and national hero who embodied spiritual and moral virtues, the ‘commander of hearts.’” 

In truth, Soleimani was a divisive figure both inside Iran and across the Middle East, much of the Iranian public is angry about the funding that was diverted to Soleimani’s foreign military adventures, and the regime’s effort to sanctify him was brutally undercut by murdering the passengers aboard the Ukrainian airliner, most of whom were Iranians or dual citizens. As Mozaffari pointed out, destroying images of Soleimani was a popular way for demonstrators to express their rage at the government for shooting down the plane.

Mozaffari agreed with the NCRI’s take that Iran’s current protests are an extension of the movement that began in November 2019 and predicted the Iranian government would focus its efforts on maintaining the network of foreign influence Soleimani created rather than addressing the grievances of a population it mistakenly believes it can terrorize and propagandize into submission. Along those lines, he advised President Donald Trump not to make any more threats against “cultural sites” that could help Tehran make nationalist and religious appeals to its restless population.

Another analyst (and a member of Iran’s former royal family), Pierre Pahlavi of Canadian Forces College, told the Epoch Times on Tuesday that January’s protests over the airliner shootdown marked an important evolution of the November uprising because the focus of discontent shifted from general complaints about lousy government policies to focused criticism of the IRGC and its masters, the theocratic wing of Iranian government.

Until now, the theocracy has enjoyed some success at shifting blame to secular officials and foreign adversaries like the United States, but that strategy has become untenable due to the IRGC’s brutal suppression of protesters and the blatant horror of the Ukrainian airliner getting shot down on the same night the IRGC was essentially throwing a temper tantrum by firing missiles into Iraq.

The subsequent effort to cover up the airliner kill by pretending the plane crashed due to a mechanical malfunction touched some very sore nerves among a population that already distrusts its government and has come to see the theocracy as an impassable obstacle to significant reform. 

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