- Six weeks after Iran's presidential election the media
still sputter with tales of vote rigging, and there are apparently some
in western media who cannot let the story die without some final whimper.
At the same time, opposition candidate Mousavi and his key supporter, the
billionaire Rafsanjani, continue to challenge the hierarchy. But what are
we watching? Die hard critics of the government would assert that we are
watching the after the fact moves of the guilty engaged in covering up
their crime. This may be the most talked about political "crime"
in decades, but no one so far has presented a corpus delicti.
- The charge that the Iranian election was stolen has persisted
by reiteration, but it has not been nourished by evidence. Rather in western
media ranging from the Internet's Huffington Post to the Christian Science
Monitor-neither billable as a rabble rouser-it has become conventional
to refer to the "fraudulent" or "stolen" Iranian election
merely in passing. It seems that the evidence is so fragmentary and speculative
that the charge of election fraud appears to carry more weight when it
is totally unsupported.
- Even so, Iran's Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
called for an investigation to see if there were any discrepancies. To
critics that sounds like capitulation, but Iranian leadership gains more
politically from an investigation than it is likely to lose. It gains the
passage of time. The equation is to keep the lid on long enough for the
pot to cool. Revolutions-green or otherwise-are hard to sustain without
- Without ignoring the obvious tensions that exist in Iranian
society, a leading question is was there actually a "green" revolution
in Iran, or was it a dispute between rival power clusters in the hierarchy,
with the "revolution" mostly invented and promoted from the outside?
- Brazilian Middle East observer and writer Pepe Escobar
portrays the results of the June elections as something akin to a palace
revolt. However, the Iranian political landscape appears more complicated
- The central operating system consists of roughly 400
leading players. The largest cluster is a Parliament of 290 that is elected
every four years and has wide economic and social policy-making powers,
but it can be overridden by groups around the supreme leader, the Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei. These include the Guardian Council of 12 who are the pundits
on Islamic law and approve all candidates for high office, the so-called
Expediency Council which seems to be a hand-picked group of advisers to
the Ayatollah, and the Assembly of Experts-86 in number-- who seem to be
charged with overseeing the Supreme Leader, but whose main function is
a sort of College of Cardinals one of selecting his successor. All of these
positions appear laden with perks any threats to which are likely to raise
a storm. Real threat management, of course, is the task of the Revolutionary
Guard whose nominal task is regime security but whose members now are involved
at many levels.
- In essence, the system combines the appearances and nomenclature
of a modern system of governance with the habits of a traditional oligarchy.
The religious overtones do not change that basic character. The abiding
subjects are earthly power and real money.
- There was a basic flaw in the way the "revolution"
presented itself to the powers that be. Outsiders have criticized the government
because it suppressed demonstrations, arguing that nonviolent protest is
totally legitimate. Within limits peaceful demonstrations seem to have
been tolerated by leadership and the police in Iran. Certainly large demonstrations
for Ahmadinejad appear to have been tolerated, albeit not covered by outside
critics. But the opposition demonstrations, as shown on western TV, have
included rock throwing, window and storefront breakage, and trashcan burning.
That may indeed make better TV imagery, but such destructive protest activities
are suppressed in virtually every country including the United States.
- A second, perhaps more fundamental flaw was in the opposition
approach. Though the oppositionists were ostensibly trying to switch immediate
leadership, the protests directed against the present government appeared
as if the goal were to overthrow it. That image particularly was added
by the interventions of outsiders. That alone invited a pattern of polarization
and confrontation that just as easily turns off people who would support
- Mir Hossein Mousavi did not handle this aspect of his
support to best advantage. His opportunity, at best, was to effect limited
change within an established political framework. Had he used his support
groups-assuming he actually had some control over them-to deliver a massive
pattern of controlled (peaceful) opposition, to critique policies or to
promote specific reforms he could have used those resources far more effectively,
perhaps even to modernize the Islamic Republic at least a little. As it
turned out, however, experienced observers of the Iran political scene
predicted that the political yield of recent protests will be a retreat
into greater conservatism. That may overstate the situation, because it
is by no means clear how much liberalizing would have occurred under rule
by Mousavi under the clerics as opposed to Ahmadinejad under the clerics.
- The Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran's Guardian Council face
some difficult choices. While billing itself as an Islamic Republic, Iranian
leadership has been facing an order of elitist opposition activity that
essentially ignores the Islamic part of the name while posing basically
secular challenges to it. The combination of students, academics, international
business people-- the English-speaking elites-who have supported Mousavi
has taken an approach designed to reduce, if not eliminate altogether,
the Islamic overtones of Iranian governance. For better or for worse, that
represents a fundamental threat to the leadership provided by Khamenei
and the hierarchy that surrounds him in the present government.
- Mousavi's problem was that without some real "reformist"
agenda he had nothing to offer. But while his agenda appeared to promise
increased, if unspecified, degrees of freedom to the elites, it did not
actually offer anything to ordinary Iranians who in fact may have gotten
a great deal less out of such change. The financial rewards of a Mousavi
win most probably would have gone to his elitist, Internet connected base
and his hierarchical support. Without the populist, distributive practices
of Ahmadinejad, whatever their flaws, ordinary Iranians appeared likely
to be ignored and, indeed, could have been worse off.
- For Iranian leadership, the principal lessons learned
from these elections may have been mostly about the players, the extent
and nature of outside meddling, and the order of discontent within Iranian
society. The diverse new tools of communications technologies-especially
cell phones and videocams and the Internet's FaceBook, YouTube and Twitter-manifested
themselves in this election more than in any other of record.
- What emerged in the situation were novel opportunities
and maybe some novel cyber applications of electoral interference. Certainly
FaceBook and Twitter were in constant use. An estimated third of Iranians
had Internet access, so all one (Iranian or not) needed to get involved
in the runup, the demonstrations and the post election protests was access
to the Net and a laptop or other digital communication device.
- Chinese leadership has been sensitive for some time about
this type of external communication and political interference or networking.
It has not closed down the Internet, but restrictions on it are abundant,
spying is constant, certain sites are or may be blocked, and China has
a growing cadre of Internet police.
- In dealing with the June 12 elections and subsequent
experiences, Iran officials are reported to have monitored emails, and
they probably authorized broader cyber surveillance. There are practical
reasons why that would commend itself to the hierarchy and to the serving
government. In effect, the Internet proved to be a major vehicle for external
meddling in Iranian affairs.
- Former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter notes
( see: "The Iranian Elections and Energy Security" in Energy
Intelligence, June 19, 2009) that the US State Department runs a program
known as the "Alliance of Youth Movements" which uses FaceBook
and other Internet avenues for "planning and implementing covert action
against Iran" The Zionists, who view Iran as the next significant
Middle Eastern challenge to exclusive Israeli regional power, have joined
the US in conducting cyber warfare against Iran. The tools are tailor made
for interfering in elections, but Ritter suggests the goal is and has been
"regime change" in Iran.
- No thorough appraisal of the impact of the Internet on
national political processes has yet been done, certainly not of such uses
of cyber warfare. However, the June 12 Iran elections provide a good place
to start, mainly because before this election the tools were neither so
well developed nor so widely available. For several years moreover, Iran
has been systematically targeted by both the United States and Israel for
harassment, leadership change or absolute regime change.
- The tools of cyber interference appear to have been added
to covert operations already being conducted along Iran's border with Iraq,
an exposed Iranian flank that runs all the way from northern Kurdish territory
to the Persian Gulf. The US also is reported to have worked with Iranian
exiles, as well as dissident groups such as MEK and the Sunni Jundallah
fighters in the Iran/Pakistan frontier region.
- Parties both in and outside Iran were busy on the Net
during the elections and subsequent protests. A striking example of what
is possible was an article on one website in which the author, an Iranian
exile, suggested it was time to promote a general strike. That was necessary,
as the writer saw it, to keep the revolution alive. The piece was not addressed
to any specific audience. Had the idea been floated in a telephone message
or an email to specific recipients in Iran, the recipients could have been
in trouble, but lying loose on the internet, it was "found" policy.
There is simply no way to know how widely this suggestion may have been
read. Such are the types of cyber interference that could incite a Chinese
scale of Net paranoia in Iran.
- Ritter refers to such cyber activity as Obama's "digital
democracy gambit". However, it is evident that the programs of this
gambit are not reserved exclusively for Iran. Moreover, if the United States
can play such games, so can any other government or any individual or group
with modest amounts of hacking skill, equipment and an urge to interfere.
- The effect of official uses of such programs is corruption
of the Internet. The corruption builds with either defensive or offensive
moves on the Internet. Targeted countries react to such abuses or hacking
of the Net with a growing pattern of tinkering with the Internet itself
to avoid interference. Spying has become so commonplace that it probably
is smart simply to assume that someone is looking over your shoulder, no
matter who or where you are.
- The Net always has been an informational flat earth due
to lack of discipline and frequently poor vetting of information postings.
Offensive or defensive official gaming by governments would further undermine
the reliability of information on the Net.
- By behaving in the ways suggested by the Alliance of
Youth Movements and the "digital democracy gambit', the United States
Government has abandoned its responsibility for protecting the integrity
of the Internet. Instead, along with other governments, it has become a
political abuser. Iran's Islamic Republican government may have been the
immediate victim, but in the end those attacks are against all users. The
modern tools of Internet meddling are both pervasive and globally destructive.
- Several dangerous attributes of cyber meddling became
immediately apparent. In the environment of the Internet national boundaries
are not effective, either at stopping or limiting information flows. In
the case of Iran, key pieces of data, ideas, strategies, countermoves,
etcetera did not need to flow in messages between individuals; they could
just be posted on known and even covertly advertised sites and consulted
anonymously. It is hard either to identify someone or to charge them with
a crime for lifting an idea off a website.
- The advocates of cyber interference may argue that the
first benefit of the game is the advancement of human rights. It is indeed
arguable that opponents to the party in power have a right to use whatever
information they can find. In the Iran case, however, complex external
motives were involved in the effort to overturn present authority and change
the regime. Shutting off alleged Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons
and turning off Iranian support for pro-Palestinian groups (Hamas and Hezbollah)
were among the external motives, and it actually did not matter to the
meddlers where the Iranian public stood on these issues.
- In short, Iranian national sovereignty was the immediate
victim of the cyber assault. The exposure of political regimes to increasing
orders of interference via open transborder communications will be the
result. While the United States appears to have used these tools to cultivate
regime change, it is undoubtedly making every effort to prevent such interference
in internal US affairs.
- But the Net is a two-way street; one cannot have it both
ways. With the two-edged tools of Internet communications and with a determined
US leadership view to interfere anywhere that seems to be in US interest,
the cyber universe is not merely corrupted but cancerous. Unless the major
powers are willing to take up the task of keeping this unique information
system clean, the most powerful tool ever invented for promoting human
understanding and accomplishment will become increasingly corrupt.
- The irony of the situation is that any Iranian election
is already rigged by the fact that the Mullahs decide who the candidates
will be. That means anyone who wins has to behave within the established
Iranian rules of the game. That is rigging of a very high order. Iran did
not invent it. Others (Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia for examples) do
it with a lot less fuss.
- It is not clear that this was understood by Mousavi's
followers. The so-called "green" revolution may well have called
on him to do things he actually had neither intended nor promised to do,
and which the Mullahs would not have let him had he tried. In this regard,
especially outside Iran, appearances counted for a great deal. In that
milieu Mousavi was a "reformist" whose reformist intentions could
not be realized. That, indeed, was the electoral theft.
- What emerged most strikingly in this Iranian election
experience were both the manner and the subtlety of the modern tools for
attempting to influence an election. In the past, American, British, Russian,
French and other efforts to influence other country electoral decisions
depended on covert tools of one order or another. That often meant hands
on covert operations of intelligence organizations and the uses of propaganda
tools in third party or local print media or radio and TV channels as they
developed. The chosen gambits involved everything from influencing selections
of candidates and issues to covert support for a preferred candidate.
- The Internet clearly has changed the equations. Where
information is concerned, even the most repressive societies now have limited
control at best over what information is available to people. Rumor today
is an actual electronic mill. The combination of linkages, websites, blogs,
emails, FaceBook, Twitter and accessing tools created a boundless information
environment for attempting to influence the Iranian election without actually
- Those capabilities pose enormous difficulties for authorities
who may honestly seek to preserve the integrity of their electoral processes
or to protect their information systems from abuse by actual or perceived
enemies. The rate, intensity, diversity and content of Internet activity
that occurred around Iranian elections may not be measurable. However,
during this election and its aftermath more damage probably was done to
the integrity of the Internet than to the centerline of Iranian politics.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India,
Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions
were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National
War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism
and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at