The Iranian regime is struggling almost daily to fight
against losses happening on multiple fronts impacting its grip on power and
ability to continue controlling its own people.
The reeling economy has been fodder for opposition
demonstrations that have steadily spread across the country and fueled a broad
range of Iranian society to openly criticize even the regime’s top mullah, Ali
Khamenei, in acts of brazen defiance unthinkable just a few years ago.
The re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions by the
U.S. with another wave of sanctions aimed directly at the regime’s oil industry
due to begin in a few months have stripped away the veneer of invincibility the
mullahs in Tehran have sought to carefully craft over the years.
But besides the kinds of headline-grabbing actions and
repercussions affecting the regime, smaller and less noticeable events are
having just as deep an effect on the long-term plans of the mullahs. One of
those smaller, but significant acts was the decision by social media companies
such as Twitter and Facebook to eliminate false front profiles being used in
support of Iranian regime messaging.
Much of the heavy lifting and research on the regime’s cyber
activities came from the U.S.-based cybersecurity firm FireEye, which
identified a network of social media accounts being fed postings and key
messages from Iranian-controlled accounts that in turn spread them through fake
accounts and profiles.
Much of the recent activity was intended to take on the
patina of liberal and progressive users railing at the Trump administration’s
decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions.
Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies promptly erased
the fake Iranian accounts which earned a predictable rebuke from Iran’s foreign
minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who made the claim that “real” Iranians were
being censored by the actions.
“Hello @Jack. Twitter has shuttered accounts of real
Iranians, (including) TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part
of an ‘influence op’,” Zarif said in a tweet, addressing Twitter CEO Jack
“How about looking at actual bots in (the Albanian capital
of) Tirana used to prop up ‘regime change’ propaganda spewed out of
(Washington) DC? #YouAreBots,” Zarif said.
Iranian controlled media accused Israel, Saudi Arabia, and
exiled opposition groups, including the Mujahideen el-Khalq (MEK) which has refugees
relocated to Albania from Iraq after being attacked by Iranian agents, of being
behind social media campaigns calling for the overthrow of the theocratic
The claim that the MEK operates troll farms in a similar
manner to the Iranian cyber operations is laughable considering how the Iranian
regime operates its own version of China’s Great Cyber Wall blocking almost all
access by Iranians to social media and the outside world.
Iranian citizens looking to circumvent the regime’s censorship have gotten creative in using VPNs, misdirected IP addresses and other techniques to access the outside world.
The regime put on a full-court press in the media in trying
to discredit the efforts by Iranian opposition groups to spread news about
what’s happening inside Iran to the rest of the world, including smuggled video
and pictures of protests inside the secretive country.
It’s no wonder Zarif and other regime officials are
scrambling to try and shut down opposition news efforts since it breaks the
veil of silence and censorship the mullahs have worked so hard to maintain in
But fighting a losing battle in social media is not the only
censorship activity the regime engages in. Iran’s top prosecutor also ordered
of a newspaper that has been critical of the regime of late on charges it
was “insulting” Shia Islam.
Montazeri ordered the shutting down of Sedayeh Eslahat for
“desecrating” the family of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam
Hussein, the Fars news agency reported on Friday.
The article that
caused offence was about a female-to-male gender reassignment surgery,
according to The Associated Press, which cited Iranian media reports.
Iran is ranked
164th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) press
In August, Iranian
courts jailed seven journalists and ordered them to
be flogged publicly over their coverage of protests by the Dervish
The Committee to
Protect Journalists said the “horrifying sentences laid bare Iranian
authorities’ depraved attitude toward journalists”.
But these efforts to muzzle social media and news media are
only reinforcing the belief within Iran that the days of unbridled control of
the country by the mullahs may finally be coming to a critical juncture.
Mohammad Hanif Jazayeri, editor of Free Iran – an
anti-government organization, said current protests within Iran are now
directly challenging authority in the country.
He added: “While the protests began initially over the dire
economic situation and mismanagement, the chants quickly turned political. Slogans
such as ‘leave Syria alone, think of us instead’ undermine the regime’s
national strategy, while chants of ‘death to the dictator’ directly challenge
the Supreme Leader’s authority.”
“Once an unimaginable sight, today chants of ‘death to
Khamenei’, the leader and ‘death to Rouhani’ the President, are now the norm in
protests of all sizes,” he said according to the Daily Star.
Predictably the Iran lobby dutifully carried Zarif’s
messaging about the MEK and opposition social media accounts by posting an editorial
in Al- Jazeera making the same charge almost word-for-word.
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, Azadeh
Moaveni, a fellow at progressive group New America, and Marc Owen Jones from
Exeter University, contributed to the piece in a sign the regime was mobilizing
all hands-on deck to combat the growing effectiveness of the Iranian opposition
efforts to keep the world informed about regime activities.