Iran Democracy Monitor No. 206

Related Categories: Cybersecurity and Cyberwarfare; Democracy and Governance; Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues; Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Islamic Extremism; Corruption; Middle East; Iran; Israel

Ongoing tensions between Iran and Israel, which have repeatedly come into direct conflict in recent months in Syria as a result of Tehran's ongoing support for the Assad regime, are now moving into a new domain: cyberspace. Beginning on April 24th, Iranian hackers carried out a computer network operation that targeted six Israel Water Authority facilities over the span of two days. The operation attempted to seize and manipulate industrial control systems and destroy critical data at the sites, which were linked to the country’s water treatment and waste management network.

The Israeli government subsequently responded with a cyberattack of its own. Israeli hackers executed an operation targeting a shipping terminal in the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on May 9th. The attack focused on computer systems responsible for controlling the flow of ships and trucks transporting cargo, resulting in a shutdown of port operations and a major backup at the facility that is said to have lasted days. (Washington Post, May 9, 2020; Times of Israel, May 19, 2020)

For over a decade, the Islamic Republic has been pursuing an enormously ambitious project: the creation of a "halal" or second internet designed to control information and manipulate the online reality of Iran's netizens. This effort, formally known as the National Information Network (NIN), was proposed by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in 2005, and in the years since has remained a fixture of Iranian budgetary spending and strategic planning. According to the the Research Center of Iran's parliament, or majles, as of last year the NIN had cost the regime a total of at least $4.5 billion. The principle behind the NIN is simple: to prevent search requests by Iranian web users that are deemed objectionable by authorities from hitting the broader World-Wide Web, and instead routing them to internal, approved websites and resources. In this way, the Iranian regime hopes to censor the information available to its citizens, and control the flow of information from the West to which Iranian citizens have access. And while the project remains very much a work in progress, its impact can already be felt; thousands of websites deemed to have "morally corruptive" content have been blocked within the country to date. (Radio Farda, May 16, 2020)

Even in death, IRGC general and Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani continues to serve as a major figure for the Iranian regime. In recent weeks, the Iranian government has officially established the Qassem Soleimani Foundation. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also appointed a logical person to lead the foundation and direct its work: Soleimani's daughter, Zeinab, who has publicly pledged to exact revenge from the United States for the killing of her father. Details on the foundation's purpose, operations, and funding remain extremely sketchy, although the new organization can be expected to promote the late paramilitary leader's teachings about irregular war and the need for "resistance" to the West and Israel. (Saudi Gazette, May 10, 2020)

Just how much money has Iran spent to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power? The Iranian government has provided extensive military and financial support to the Syrian government since the start of the conflict there in 2011, at first on a clandestine basis and more recently on an overt one. This aid has included the training, equipping and deployment of large numbers of Shi'a irregulars drawn from neighboring countries, including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Cumulatively, Iran's assistance has been instrumental in allowing the Assad regime to turn the tide of the conflict back in its favor in recent years.

But Tehran's help has cost the Islamic Republic dearly. According to Heshmatolah Falahatpisheh, a parliamentarian and former member of Iran's National Security and Policy Commission, the amount spent by the regime over the course of the nine-year conflict stands at between $20 and $30 billion. The sum represents an enormous strategic investment, eclipsing the country's annual defense budget, which in 2019 was valued at approximately $16.6 billion. (Bloomberg, May 20, 2020)