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Iran's cyber army attacks the West

By
Struan Stevenson
A staff member counts the votes of the Scottish elections at the Emirates in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7. The elections were a target of Iranian cyberattacks. File Photo by Robert Perry/EPA-EFE
A staff member counts the votes of the Scottish elections at the Emirates in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 7. The elections were a target of Iranian cyberattacks. File Photo by Robert Perry/EPA-EFE

May 17 (UPI) -- The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iranian regime's Ministry of Intelligence and Security have a sophisticated cyber setup whose toxic output affects every continent.

They use their cyber army to manipulate and mislead the world's politicians and public opinion. While Iran's economy is in free fall, the currency has collapsed, inflation is spiraling and people rake through trash cans for edible scraps, the theocratic regime is spending huge amounts of money on cyberattacks, particularly in the West.

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Desperate to cling to power, the mullahs have ramped up repression and turned to the exploitation of cyber warfare to spread propaganda, influence events, shape foreign perceptions and counter perceived threats. The U.S. State Department says, "The Islamic Republic has developed its cyber capabilities with the intent to surveil and sabotage its adversaries, undermining international norms and threatening international stability."

Inside Iran, a new wave of domestic cyber warfare, led by the IRGC in collaboration with the MOIS, accelerated significantly after the eruption of nationwide protests in 2018 and 2019. Intelligence sources from resistance units inside Iran established that the regime had focused on mass surveillance through malicious codes embedded in IRGC mobile apps, actively to monitor and disrupt the communication of protesters and dissidents.

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In reaction to the ongoing uprisings, the Iranian regime is adapting its network surveillance technology to embrace mobile device monitoring of content, context and contacts to counter the expansion of the uprisings and to avert further protests. People attempting to spread news of protests on social media are regularly arrested and imprisoned.

Externally, the most recent target for the Iranian regime's cyberattacks were the elections in Scotland. The mullahs peddled disinformation in fake posts and tweets on Facebook and Twitter for at least the last 12 months and possibly dating as far back as 2013, in support of Scottish independence and the fracturing of the United Kingdom.

Like the Russians, the Iranian regime is keen to promote anything that might harm the West. Breaking up the U.K. is therefore a primary focus for their cyber trolls, who have targeted social media relentlessly with fake separatist material, graphics, memes and cartoons in an attempt to influence Scottish voters in the May 6 elections.

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The Iranian regime's malign activities have been studied for the past year by the Henry Jackson Society, a transatlantic think tank. It reported that fake accounts and groups were set up by cyber specialists from Tehran to fool Scottish Internet users. The Henry Jackson Society described it as an attempt by the mullahs' regime to "attack the constitutional integrity of the U.K."

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With leading nationalist Nicola Sturgeon back in the saddle as Scotland's first minister and an overall majority of MSP's in the Scottish Parliament who favor independence, it looks as if the theocratic regime may have scored a hit with their disinformation campaign. The Scottish National Party may pause to reflect on the strange bedfellows they have accumulated during their endless separatist crusades, although they have stressed that they have never encouraged or endorsed such interference. Indeed, they claim to have worked "to counter the spread of disinformation."

The serious implications of Iranian interference in the Scottish elections has triggered a robust response from James Cleverly MP, the U.K. minister for the Middle East and Africa, who says he will raise Britain's concerns with international leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall, England, in June. Cleverly said he will seek an agenda item at the summit meeting of foreign ministers dealing with the Iranian regime's "destabilizing behavior, not just in the region but also more broadly." In March, Facebook removed 446 fake accounts that it traced back to the Iranian regime.

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The cyber war activities of the theocratic regime are simply the tip of a dangerous iceberg. The mullahs' egregious abuse of human rights, their massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, their murder of 1,500 protesters during a nationwide uprising in 2019 and their history of torture, brutality, injustice and arbitrary executions have turned Iran into a pariah state.

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In addition, their policy of aggressive expansionism across the Middle East and their role as the godfather of international terror, with repeated cases of so-called "diplomats" involved in terror plots in the West, have radically altered international attitudes to Tehran. The recent jailing of Assadollah Assadi, a "diplomat" from the Iranian embassy in Vienna, for attempted murder and terrorism following his plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris has focused attention on the menacing hazards posed by the mullahs.

Perhaps recognizing the imminent collapse of the regime, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been suspected of leaking a supposedly confidential and classified tape recording of an interview he gave, in which he openly criticizes the IRGC. Listed as a terrorist organization in the West, the IRGC is the equivalent of the regime's Gestapo and has been responsible for most of its violent extremist activities at home and abroad.

In the leaked tape, which has caused a firestorm in Iran, Zarif can be heard to complain that he had to spend most of his time clearing up the diplomatic mess made by the IRGC. He claimed that he had no authority to make decisions and that all foreign policy was dictated by the IRGC acting on the direct instructions of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Many Iran watchers now believe Zarif has contrived to expose the tape as a future defense against indictments in the international courts for his involvement in cyberattacks, terror plots and crimes against humanity. But his efforts have backfired spectacularly, undermining his credibility as foreign minister and highlighting his close involvement as a willing puppet in the Iranian regime's aggressive imperialist, expansionist and terrorist strategies.

Zarif would do well to study the history of Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany's foreign minister. At his trial as a war criminal at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, he tried to distance himself from Nazi decision-making, claiming only Hitler himself had been responsible. His claims, which have echoes of the statements made by Zarif, were dismissed by the court, and Ribbentrop was executed on Oct. 16, 1946.

Struan Stevenson is the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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