Iran has significantly stepped up its use of corporate acquisitions, online propaganda, and hacking capabilities in recent years, according to an open source intelligence expert.
Jeff Bardin, the chief intelligence officer at Treadstone 71—an American company that researches publicly available materials—told a packed session at the International Conference on Cyber Conflicton Wednesday that Iran has become much more sophisticated and pervasive in its use of online tools.
He outlined the major paramilitary organizations that operate within Iran, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij, and Ashiyane. The latter is a notorious hacker group that works in conjunction with the Iranian government. All of these groups, he said, share an overarching focus on an Iranian concept used to promote the movement that became the philosophic foundation of the Islamic Revolution: westoxification. It’s the loss of Persian language, culture, and influence to Western countries.
“[Iranians’] patience is, in my view, legendary,” he told Ars. “The United States is famous for underestimating the adversary.”
The IRGC, known in Persian as the “Pasdaran,” is a massive organization that touches nearly every part of the Iranian economy, including owning or controlling major corporations. Most notably, just months after the disputed presidential election of June 2009, the Iranian government sold a majority $7.8 billion stake in the Iran Telecommunications Company, a former monopoly.
“It smacks of a communist model,” Bardin said of the uncompetitive nature of awarding contracts to the IRGC. He added that by controlling the infrastructure itself, the Iranian government’s agencies could capture even tighter control over what was being said and done online.
Bardin also said that the IRGC has been paying bloggers and online activists to promote the Islamic Republic and its policies in comments, forums, Facebook pages, and other online venues. Bardin says that the going rate was about “$7 per hour.” However, an Israeli organization, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, cited a figure of about $4.30 per hour as of January 2012.
The IRGC is also behind the Center for Investigating Organized Cyber Crimes, and its website,gerdab.ir, which notoriously published photos of street protestors in July 2009 and asked citizens to turn them in.
According to a 2009 Rand Corporation paper on the IRGC, the group “plays a role in monitoring Internet communications to mitigate the influx of corrupting foreign ideals and antiregime material. In this effort, it coordinates closely with other security entities. In a 2007 interview, the head of the Internet section of the Tehran Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s office explained, ‘On the whole, filtering is being carried out between… the government, the judiciary, the officials of the law-enforcement forces and the Basij.’”
Bardin also outlined that these groups come together in very public meetings in Iran, as evidenced in the recent get-together of “Hizbullah Cyber,” which took place on May 24, 2012 (Google Translate).
“This war is getting more and more complicated; in cyberspace, where you’re working as soldiers, we have to go until [we occupy] New York and the White House,” said Hussein Yekta, an IRGC leader, at last month’s event, according to an account by Raja News (Google Translate), a government-affiliated conservative news site.
The Treadstone 71 researcher also said that another one, entitled “Liberation of Khorramshahr,” is scheduled to take place in Tehran between June 17 and 20.
Despite the large amount of noise online, he conceded that while the government’s online sophistication has grown recently, a significant portion of the Iranian population (and particularly its diaspora) does not agree with the Islamic Republic’s policies.
“The IRGC’s omnipresence does not necessarily guarantee its omnipotence,” Bardin concluded in his talk at the conference’s Wednesday session.