In reporting on these latest incidents, Fox News quoted Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk as saying that the surge in hacking attempts is one example of the ways in which Iran’s behavior stands to become steadily worse if not confronted with a more aggressive US policy. Meanwhile, other policymakers and analysts have criticized Western governments for a lax policy with respect to Iran’s domestic human rights situation, which may be meaningfully linked to its foreign cyberattacks.
Gizmodo emphasized this connection in its coverage of the attacks, specifically linking them to the arrest last month of Iranian-US dual citizen Siamak Namazi. The high-profile businessman’s computer was allegedly confiscated during the arrest, and may have been used to extract information about the Western connections of his influential family. This may in turn have been utilized as the staging ground for phishing attacks aimed at extracting additional information and connections from the computers of Western targets.
Indeed, if Namazi’s arrest is directly connected to the cyberattacks, this would not be the first instance of Iran utilizing this strategy. Cybersecurity experts have previously written about the uptick in Iranian phishing schemes and the fact that many of them were linked to arrests inside the country. This may be linked to broader efforts to manufacture connections between domestic activists or dissenters and Western government officials or agencies.
This latter strategy was discussed in an IranWire report published on Wednesday, which pointed out that representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had spoken on Iranian television in defense of the apparent recent crackdown on Iranian journalists. The report indicates that the several recent arrests may be indicative of a more extensive plan, which involves the well-worn policy of blaming foreign interlopers for reporting that is critical of the Iranian regime.
IranWire explains that the IRGC statements outlined a theory portraying five recently arrested journalists as part of an extensive network aimed at recruiting local writers and media personalities for the sake of influencing the Islamic Republic and advancing a pro-Western agenda. But the IRGC officials absurdly claimed that the infiltration network had been set up by Western-dominated entities in such a way that individual members could be unaware of the connections between their own professional networks and those of the Western heads of the larger network.
Naturally, this sort of narrative opens the door for the IRGC and other Iranian authorities to discredit or punish local journalists on the basis of incidental professional and personal connections that span several degrees of separation. And opening the door to arbitrary enforcement even wider, the IRGC’s televised remarks also made reference to persons whose allegedly criminal activities involved representing a pro-Western agenda even in absence of direct connections to Western entities.
IranWire adds that the regime may already be in the process of acting upon this broad mandate for repression. That is, while at least five journalists have already been arrested this week, another 20 have been summoned to the IRGC’s intelligence services and could be formally arrested at any moment.
The connection between these arrests and summons on the one hand, and the potential linkages in arrestees’ computer profiles raises the specter of Iran’s general monitoring of information technology communications. Many domestic activists and critics of the regime have been targeted for prosecution purely on the basis of communications exchanged over Facebook or other social networks. Some Iranian web users have thus migrated to communication applications that are deemed more secure. But not everyone trusts in this alleged security.
Last month, there were reports that Iranian officials had briefly shut down the instant messaging app Telegram after its owners refused to grant the regime tools to spy on communications exchanged through the app. But Telegram creator Pavel Durov partially withdrew these claims on Wednesday according to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
For unspecified reasons, Durov reported that he now accepted the Iranian regime’s denial that it had ever required such spying tools, notwithstanding the communications that Durov had received demanding them. The Russian entrepreneur now accepts that those demands were likely “not authorized by higher authorities.”
But this does not discount the possibility that the demands were genuine and came from “lower” authorities, such as the IRGC. Such an approach to the issue could leave the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other political officials with plausible deniability regarding policies of expanded repression. At the same time, the crackdown on journalism and internet communications would be very much in keeping with Khamenei’s acknowledged policies, which have recently involved a comparable surge in propaganda aimed at poisoning civilians against the notion of reconciliation with the United States.
There have been many recent instances of this, including Khamenei’s ban on imports of American consumer goods and his ban on negotiations between Iranian and US officials over anything other than last summer’s nuclear agreement. But Investors’ Business Daily pointed out on Thursday that the latest examples come in the form of Iranian state media’s claim that the Russian airliner downed in Egypt was the result of a CIA attack, and the rejection of any Iranian cooperation with the international community in the Syria security conference to which Iran was invited last week.
The report also pointed out that so-called moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has still taken no serious steps toward increasing domestic freedoms in Iran or otherwise discouraging the sort of one-sided propaganda that is obstructing rapprochement between Iran and the US. Investors’ used these observations to support criticisms of the Obama administration as projecting American weakness and encouraging the Iranian regime to effectively double down on its hatred of the West.