While no evidence has been presented to substantiate the claim that there is a coordinated network of influence aimed at overturning the Iranian regime, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his associates continue to issue vague warnings apparently aimed at delegitimizing the broad-based domestic opposition to the regime’s ideologies. Toward that end, Khamenei issued new statements on the topic this week, according to The Tower.
In remarks posted to his official website and broadcast on Iranian state television, Khamenei asserted, “The enemy sets up a network within a nation and inside a country mainly through the two means of money and sexual attractions to change ideals, beliefs and consequently the lifestyle.”
The Tower also listed a number of the prior incidences of Khamenei’s ramped-up anti-Western rhetoric, such as his ban on imports of US goods and his suggestion that the Islamic Republic would win a theoretical war between the two countries.
The belligerence demonstrated by such remarks is not limited to boasting and propaganda, however. Tehran appears to be pushing back against the feared Western influence both through political maneuvering and through cyberattacks that could help the regime to prosecute domestic dissidents and activists on the basis of incidental US connections.
Several previous reports have pointed to the surge in phishing attacks originating from Iran’s cyberespionage apparatus. These often coincide closely with arrests of political prisoners, whose own computers are used to gain access to online social networks and spread among other web users.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has described the supposed Western infiltration network as being structured in a way that allows Iranians to operate within it without knowing who they are working for. This allows for the IRGC to incriminate people on the basis of online connections that have multiple degrees of separation.
In another article published this week, The Tower pointed out that phishing and other hacking efforts originating in Iran had become serious enough to lead Congress to boost the military’s means to counter such threats. The United States Cyber Command has been instructed to carry out wargames emulating attacks from Iran and other threats. This command was apparently prompted by the State Department’s acknowledgment that Iranian hacking efforts had lately been showing more skill and greater volume.
In November, European officials succeeded in shutting down a major Iranian hacking group, but this came only months after the number of logged attempts reached their peak in May, with 1,500 attempts during that month alone. Around the same time, cyber security experts began to notice that some of these hacking efforts appeared to serve as reconnaissance for attacks that could cause physical damage to infrastructure networks.
Furthermore, evidence emerged that Iranian hackers had gained access to security gates at airports in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Pakistan, suggesting the possibility of Iranian cyber units being used in coordination with terrorist activities carried out by Hezbollah or any of Iran’s other proxies and associates.
These groups have certainly been used in the past to carry out attacks on Western targets, including US service members in Iraq. But within current circumstances, there are also indications that the same groups may be used, at Iran’s behest, to curry favor among existing and potential allies for anti-Western causes.
Case in point, IranWire reported on Thursday that IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani apparently had personally overseen an operation by Quds Force-trained Syrian commandos working together with Hezbollah fighters to free a Russian airman that was shot down by Turkey.
IranWire notes that Suleimani’s unique personal interest in the mission comes after his prior efforts to establish and maintain a close relationship with Russian leaders. Suleimani has been largely credited with convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy his air force to fight against Syrian rebels, in support of Iranian ground operations.
The successful rescue operation also comes only days after Putin visited Tehran to meet with the Iranian supreme leader and president. These and other signs of expanded Russian-Iranian cooperation cast doubt upon apparent Western strategies that involve encouraging Russia to relinquish its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose removal Tehran refuses to consider.
Western leaders such as US President Barack Obama have also stated that they are willing to negotiate with Iran over this issue, though the two sides have remained firmly at odds so far. But some critics of the Obama administration fear that it will capitulate to Iranian demands in the wake of the nuclear negotiations that concluded in July. By many accounts, the pursuit of diplomacy on that issue signified a general change in Western strategy toward Iran, in favor of engagement without threats.
In fact, this approach may have inspired similar behavior by non-state actors. On Friday, Inside the Games reported upon the Human Rights Watch campaign demanding that the International Volleyball Federation bar Iran from hosting tournaments until it lifts its ban on female attendance at men’s games. So far, the federation has refused to comply with this demand, and the official in charge of the situation explained that the reason was that they had elected to use “a carrot rather than a stick approach” to negotiating with the theocratic regime.
Human Rights Watch, for its part, has taken on much the same role in this situation as Tehran’s harshest critics have taken on the nuclear issue. The activist group insists that more can be accomplished by making more serious demands of the Iranian government than have been made so far. Critics of the regime tend to regard the current surge of anti-Western rhetoric as evidence that its leaders will not permit positive changes unless they are compelled to do so.