On October 22, intelligence analysts and private-sector sleuths discovered Iran’s involvement in the U.S. Presidential elections. John Ratcliffe, Director of U.S. National Intelligence, stated that the Iran-backed hackers projected a “false flag operation” to interfere with the November 3 election.
Following the revelation, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the IRGC Quds Force, and the Bayan Rasaneh Gostar Institute for having directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in the upcoming elections. It also designated the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRIB) and International Union of Virtual Media for being owned or controlled by the IRGC Quds Force.
This is not the first time that the IRGC’s cyber army has launched a misinformation campaign. For many years, the Iranian government abuses the free information flow to demonize dissidents. In addition to cyberattacks, Tehran has printed thousands of books and made hundreds of movies containing false accusations.
MEK Is Primary Target for Tehran’s Cyberattacks
The Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) was the primary target for these attacks. On September 18, The New York Times revealed that “the MEK is among the most prominent victims of the attacks.”
“Iran’s behavior on the internet, from censorship to hacking, has become more aggressive than ever,” The Times cited Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at ‘Miaan’ Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East.
Earlier, on August 6, Google declared it had detected and deleted 19 channels with links to Iran. “The Iran-linked channels were part of a state-sponsored campaign by the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM) network, which posted content in Arabic critical of the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Britain’s Independent reported.
The Iranian government poses a real threat to freedom. The ayatollahs have shown their determination to silence any opposition even abroad. In this context, they exploit any instrument to disrupt the opposition’s reputation.
“Demonization and terrorism are two sides of the same coin for the Iranian regime. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) wanted to pursue both plans at the same time. While [Tehran’s terrorists] were trying to carry out the bomb attack [against the Iranian opposition’s meeting in France], two MOIS agents were busy spreading false news against the MEK,” said Abol-Qassem Rezaei, a senior official of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), at an online conference on October 22.
Demonization and #terrorism are two sides of the same coin for the regime. #MOIS wanted to pursue both plans at the same time. While they were trying to carry out the attack, two MOIS agents were busy spreading false news against the #MEK—Abolghassem Rezaihttps://t.co/GbhptzgGgE
— IranNewsUpdate (@IranNewsUpdate1) October 22, 2020
“Iranian authorities also suppress and digitally track the opposition and even the objective reporters. The Iranian regime uses a mix of these heavy-handed tactics along with subtler, more covert attacks or manipulation campaigns on social media to spread disinformation and fake news at a velocity and scale that would have been unheard of before the digital age,” said Theresa Payton, cybersecurity expert, and CIO for President George W. Bush, at the Free Iran 2020 virtual meeting on July 17.
Iranian Authorities Deprive Citizens of Internet Access
In contrast, Tehran bans people from access to free information flow and has filtered messaging apps. Recently, 40 lawmakers submitted a plan to the presidium, calling for filtering all foreign messaging apps. Furthermore, as the first response to any protest, Iranian authorities cut off access to the internet.
Last November, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest gasoline price hikes. However, the government immediately shut down the internet and slaughtered protesters with heavy machineguns, armored vehicles, snipers, and helicopters, leading to 1,500 deaths and many more injuries.
Recently, Iranian officials shut down the net when hundreds of people came onto the streets to mourn for passing the legendary singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian. In other words, authorities hypocritically exploit cyberspace to implement their agenda while they have deprived their own people of the internet.
In such circumstances, the international community must step up to address the cyber threat of Iran and adopt a firm policy against the Iranian government’s terrorism, either physical or cyber plots, dissidents argue. The world must enable the Iranian people to use the right of access to free information flow and social media platforms to express their real desire and organize their protests against the authoritarian regime.