Spotlight on Iran (Week of March 11-18, 2010)

Issued on: 18/03/2010 Type: Article

Spotlight on Iran
Spotlight on Iran

Highlights of the week

  • Iran-US "cyber war” reaches new heights

  • US-Israel tensions attract interest from Iranian media

  • Chaharshanbeh Souri: debate on pre-Islamic tradition in the Islamic republic

  • Official data on Internet penetration rate in Iran: 11.1 percent

  • Pictures of the week: opening of Imam Khomeini Highway, the first two-level highway in Iran

Spotlight on Iran is taking a break for the Persian New Year (Nowruz) and Passover. The next newsletter will be released in the last week of April. Happy New Year and Happy Passover!

Iran-US "cyber war” reaches new heights

Iran announced this week the arrest of 30 people suspected of belonging to a "cyber network” allegedly operated by the US in Iran. An announcement released by the general prosecutor’s office in Tehran says that the suspects were arrested in the wake of a complex IT and communications operation which exposed their involvement in a network called Iran Proxy. According to Iranian authorities, the network was established by the CIA, worked under the cover of the US State Department, and had a budget of 50 million dollars. The network was involved, among other things, in infiltrating national databases, working against Iranian authorities’ efforts to block websites, providing Iranian web surfers with security services, and installing secure telephone and information lines to allow Iranians to grant interviews to Western media, such as Voice of America.

The announcement released by the authorities also claims that the US created a network of human rights activists which served as a front for the activity of the opposition organization Mojahedin-e Khalq in Iran. The network recruited Iranians through the Internet, sent them to training in Iraq and other countries, created networks for gathering intelligence (specifically regarding the activities of Iran’s nuclear scientists), recruited and organized Iranians residing abroad, prepared reports designed to encourage psychological warfare against Iran, organized illegal gatherings following the presidential elections, released false information on Iran’s internal situation, and attempted to hack into servers used by the Iranian government, disrupt municipal management systems across Iran, and establish a security cover for an armed struggle against the regime (IRNA, March 14).

Shortly after the publication of the reports on the arrests of the network members, Iran’s media reported that the cyber department of the Revolutionary Guards had attacked 29 websites which allegedly operated under the patronage of the US. According to an announcement released by the Revolutionary Guards, cyber teams on that organization’s behalf attacked websites affiliated with an American espionage network which worked against Iranian national security under the cover of human rights activity. Those cyber teams are part of a new Revolutionary Guards center which aims to track and combat organized crime, espionage, economic and social corruption, and cultural infiltration through the Internet (Fars, March 14).

Cyber War
From the Talkhandak blog, February 25

The conservative media have extensively covered the exposure of the American "cyber network” this week. A lengthy report published earlier this week in the daily Keyhan says that the network is yet another link in the American efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime by means of a "cyber war” waged by the CIA since 2006 with the assistance of anti-revolutionary groups, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the Baha’is, and royalist elements. Such activities kicked into high gear following the outbreak of the riots following the presidential elections, and included efforts by US-led elements to disrupt Iran’s power grid in order to cause severe economic damage and aggravate the social tensions in the country. According to Keyhan, the CIA attempted to move the war against the Iranian regime to cyberspace and stage an "Internet coup”. According to the report, Iran Proxy, the network exposed by the Revolutionary Guards, employed hackers for attacking websites, servers, and domains used by the leadership, the Ministry of Defense, the Revolutionary Guards, and universities (Keyhan, March 15). An editorial published in Keyhan emphasized the connection between the "soft war” waged by the US against Iran and public order disruptions organized by the reformist opposition since the presidential elections. It is Keyhan’s claim that the internal struggle is designed to prepare Iranian public opinion for a "soft war” led by Iran’s outside enemies to destabilize the Islamic republic and spread secularism. The "Zionist-Christian triangle” (Britain, Israel, and the US) endeavored to establish a new Freemason organization in Iran to spread liberal and secular thought through activities on the cultural and political scenes, on the media, and in the universities (Keyhan, March 15).

Rah-e Sabz, a reformist website affiliated with the supporters of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, also reported the arrest of the American cyber network members, linking the arrest with a series of actions taken in recent months by Iranian authorities to curb the use of the Internet for political needs. In a report titled "Iran’s new imaginary enemy: the Internet”, the website provides an extensive coverage of the regime’s activities in cyberspace, which include increasing the monitoring of websites, filtering and blocking sites, imposing severe restrictions on access to online social networks and the use of e-mail services, increased enforcement and legal action against "computer crimes”, and using the "Iranian Cyber Army” by the regime to attack websites affiliated with Western and reformist elements (Rah-e Sabz, March 15).

US-Israel tensions attract interest from Iranian media

The US-Israel tensions have drawn considerable attention from Iranian media this week. Major dailies and news websites have reported on the disagreements between the American administration and the Israeli government over the continuation of building in Jerusalem, and even emphasized the statement of Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, who was quoted by Israeli media this week saying that the relations between the two countries were undergoing the worst crisis in 35 years (Asr-e Iran, March 15).

According to the assessment of some Iranian media, it is indeed a profound, significant crisis in the relations between the two countries. Fararu, a website which extensively reported on the current crisis in Israel-US relations, noted that the relations between the two countries chilled following the election of Obama as president, and that the US administration took a stance contrary to that of Israel regarding Israel's threats against Iran. In Fararu's view, the reactions of the American administration to the policy of the Israeli government in recent days indicate that even though it is a "family dispute", it is nevertheless deep and its impact on the Middle East peace process remains to be seen (Fararu, March 16). 

It is also the view of the conservative daily Vatan-e Emrooz that the crisis in US-Israel relations is real and severe. According to the daily, the visit of Vice President Joe Biden was meant to solve the disagreements between Israel and the US on promoting the peace process after the failed visit of George Mitchell. Despite Biden's declarations on the US commitment towards Israel, his visit failed when Israel declared its intention to build in East Jerusalem, and the strong friendship between the two countries took a severe blow. The daily believes that the current crisis in the relations between the two countries also has an impact on the US policy towards Iran, since Israel's defiant measures against the US during Biden's visit derailed the vice president's attempt to take advantage of his visit to promote new psychological warfare against Iran and carry out a project aimed to contend with Iran (Vatan-e Emrooz, March 16).

In contrast, the conservative daily Siyasat-e Rooz played down the current crisis in US-Israel relations. Referring to the tension prevailing in Jerusalem in recent days, the daily criticized the silence of the international community and Arab leaders over Israel's policy and the "crimes of the Zionists". The daily reported that while the top advisor of the US president criticized Israel's decision to build new housing units in Jerusalem, he completely ignored the situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel's action against the holy sites of Islam in Jerusalem. According to the daily, this is an indication of the Americans' desire to take advantage of minor developments to conceal the Israelis' crimes (Siyasat-e Rooz, March 16).

Chaharshanbeh Souri: debate on pre-Islamic tradition in the Islamic republic

The debate on Chaharshanbeh Souri, a holiday marked on the last Wednesday of the Persian year, has once again reemerged this year. Due to the pre-Islamic roots and pagan themes of the holiday, senior clerics have in recent years called to abolish it. For example, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani issued a religious ruling in 2004 arguing that the purpose of those "heathen" rituals was to compromise the Islamic identity and that therefore they must not be marked. 

The call to ban the tradition has been heard once again this week. In response to a request for a religious ruling on the subject, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled that since Chaharshanbeh Souri had no religious legal basis, and since the holiday traditions involved damage and corruption, the holiday had best not be marked (Tabnak, March 14). The Supreme Leader's view was shared by senior cleric Ayatollah Ja'far Sobhani, who defined the holiday as a "kind of superstition" which goes against Islamic religious law and logic. Sobhani noted that one of the goals of the Prophet Muhammad's mission was to release people from pre-Islamic customs and traditions which had confined human thought with chains and shackles. The Prophet sought to prevent the influence of those traditions on people's lives and morals, and therefore abolished all pre-Islamic traditions which prevailed in his time. Chaharshanbeh Souri, Sobhani said, is one of those wrong traditions, the way it is marked in Iran reflects ignorance, and the damage it causes is obvious, since it often results in the injuries and even death of many youngsters who mark the holiday by building fires and jumping over them. Sobhani called on the people of Iran to carefully consider their actions during Chaharshanbeh Souri and to avoid acting in a manner which contradicts Islamic religious law and logic (Mehr, March 10).


Cleric Hojjatoleslam Yousefi Gharavi from the religious seminar in the city of Qom also had reservations regarding the Chaharshanbeh Souri celebrations, saying they were a reflection of the ritual of fire which was commonplace before the advent of Islam. Gharavi said that some sought to lend that holiday an Islamic character, even though it is not accepted in Islam, and that the holiday rituals reflected superstitions which infiltrated Iran's national traditions. The cleric admitted that the celebration of the holiday by Iranians could not be prevented, saying, however, that it should be marked differently than it is now, for example by praying, reading the Quran, and giving charity (Raja News, March 11).

The tradition of Chaharshanbeh Souri symbolizes the beginning of the Nowruz celebrations. The custom of building fires and jumping over them originates in Zoroastrianism, reflecting the desire to expel evil on the eve of the New Year. Iran's authorities attempted to abolish such rituals in the first years after the Islamic revolution; however, those attempts failed since the tradition is so deeply rooted among Iranians. Accordingly, in recent years Iranian authorities have been forced to come to terms with the Chaharshanbeh Souri celebrations and settle for monitoring them so that they do not turn into clashes between youngsters and security forces, which happened on several past occasions. In addition, the authorities work to minimize physical injuries as a result of using flammable substances. In recent years, many Iranians, including children, have been hurt in accidents taking place during Chaharshanbeh Souri as a result of reckless use of fire and of dangerous substances, such as firecrackers and fireworks.

On the eve of Chaharshanbeh Souri, several news websites reported that internal security forces deployed in various locations across Tehran to prevent activists belonging to the reformist protest movement from using the holiday celebrations as a show of power. Internal security forces chief Isma'il Ahmadi Moqaddam warned this week that those who violate public order during the holiday festivities would be dealt with severely by the police. The internal security forces, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij have even set up a joint headquarters for ensuring public order and dealing with possible order disruptions during the holiday events (Mehr; Fars, March 15).

Official data on Internet penetration rate in Iran: 11.1 percent

This week, the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI) released new figures on the Internet penetration rate in Iran. The results of the study carried out in 2008 by the center at the request of the information technologies company show that the Internet penetration rate in Iran reached 11.1 percent last year.

The study, which included nearly 100 thousand Iranian families across the country, showed that out of the 71.8 million people living in Iran, 7.96 million surfed the web. The penetration rate among people living in cities is 15 percent, and only 3 percent among people living in rural areas. The penetration rate in the 10 to 59 demographic is 13.9 percent.

Official data on Internet penetration rate in Iran

Out of all the web surfers in Iran, 28.8 percent live in Tehran Province, where the penetration rate is 16.4--the highest in Iran. The lowest penetration rate is in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan--only 3.3 percent.

The study also shows that 75.2 web surfers do so mainly from their own homes, 15 percent surf from their workplaces, 26 percent surf from Internet cafes, and 14.9 percent surf from their educational institutions. 91.9 of home surfers use dial-up connections. 85.1 percent of families living in Iran in the Iranian year 1387 (2008-2009) had a landline telephone at home, while 71.3 percent of families had at least one cellular telephone device (ISNA, March 13).

The figures released this week are lower than the figures formerly released by Iran's Telecommunications Ministry on the Internet penetration rate in the country. In September 2008, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Soleimani announced that the number of web surfers was 23 million people and that the Internet penetration rate was expected to reach 30 percent by 2009.

Pictures of the week: opening of Imam Khomeini Highway,
the first two-level highway in Iran (Esfahan, March 15)

opening of Imam Khomeini Highway

Additional Bulletins