Three hundred and sixty seconds. That’s all it would take for Iranian security services to identify and track an encrypted message sent to a mobile phone somewhere inside Iran, kick in the door, and seize the phone.
These findings—the results of a test conducted inside Iran by technology experts to assess the regime’s capabilities—confirm President Obama’s declaration, in his speech last month marking Nowruz, Iran’s New Year, that the Iranian government employs an “electronic curtain” with which technologies “that should empower citizens are being used to repress them.” Tearing down the electronic curtain will require concerted action by Western governments, including measures to stop foreign companies from selling Tehran the technology that has enabled its Internet repression.
Tehran authorities are able to monitor and control Internet activity because all of Iran’s communications data travel through a single hub: the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI), which is controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The U.S. and European Union have sanctioned leading Revolutionary Guards officials for human-rights abuses for their involvement in the brutal suppression of their political opponents.
In Iran’s telecom and technology industries—as in its energy and financial sectors—there is little distinction between the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards have used their control of TCI and their dominant role in the security establishment to take extraordinary measures to cut Iranians off from one another and from the outside world.
The regime recently announced plans to create a “National Intranet” before the end of this year that would prevent Iranians from accessing outside content unless it has been approved by the government. (The Iranian regime now calls the announcement a fabrication, though the idea is consistent with actions Tehran has taken in the past.)
The first phase of these plans would replace Google, Hotmail and Yahoo! services with “Iran Mail” and “Iran Search Engine.” The second stage would make permanent the one-off measures that block or degrade Iranians’ Internet access. Over five million websites are already banned, and access to Skype, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and other popular online services is limited.
Tehran also practices repression of a more low-tech sort. The regime requires proprietors of Iranian Internet cafés to record detailed information on their customers’ Web activities. The White House has said on its blog that Tehran has created a “Cyber Army” of 15,000 members to hunt down Iranians with whom it disagrees. It also notes that in August 2011, the Cyber Army devised a fake security certificate that collected email account information from 400,000 Iranians.
Unfortunately, foreign companies have sold the Guards the technologies they need to make this oppression possible. In July 2011, according to Reuters, Chinese telecom manufacturer ZTE sold Iran systems that can deconstruct phone calls, emails and social media messages, analyzing them for keywords and targeting users.
These systems include hardware and software from some of America’s best-known technology companies, including Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Cisco, Dell, Juniper Networks and Symantec, all of which deny knowledge that their products are being bundled into systems sold to Iran. A Reuters investigation confirmed, however, that these companies’ technology was included in these systems. After the Reuters report was published, HP, Dell, Cisco and Juniper said that they were initiating internal investigations.
In 2008, Nokia Siemens Network, a joint venture between Finland’s Nokia and Germany’s Siemens, provided TCI with a monitoring center capable of tracking users. Public outrage in Europe and the U.S. forced Nokia Siemens to reduce its business in Iran, but other companies continue to do business with the regime.
According to a Bloomberg investigation last October, China’s Huawei Technologies, Stockholm-based Ericsson AB, Britain’s Creativity Software and the Dublin-based AdaptiveMobile have marketed or sold technology that Iran’s law-enforcement or state-security agencies would be able to access. AdaptiveMobile says its products, which were sold to mobile network operators, are for combating spam and viruses, and not for law enforcement.
These and other companies know more than Western government authorities about how their products may be used and who their customers might be. They should help see to it that their products are not used to hunt down and kill Iranian citizens.
Moreover, the entire Iranian telecom and technology industry should be blacklisted and closed to foreign companies unless they can certify to the U.S. government that any sales of technology to Iran will facilitate Iranians’ access to safe and open communications. This is the aim of legislation that Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) is looking to introduce as an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill currently under consideration in the Senate. Reps. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.) and Robert Dold (R., Ill.) are working on introducing the same provisions in the House.
The bipartisan legislation would declare Iran’s telecom and technology sectors “zones of electronic repression” and make them off-limits to Western firms—including non-U.S. companies, who would be required to certify that their Iranian business is legitimate if they wish to keep their access to the American market.
While these measures alone may not stop the Iranian regime from repressing its own people, they would be a tremendous start toward enacting the principles that the Obama administration has set out for itself on Iran. Mr. Obama said in his Nowruz address: “We hope that others will join us in advancing a basic freedom for the Iranian people: the freedom to connect with one another, and with their fellow human beings.”
We would add that the Iranian people also deserve the rights to open debate and free assembly, and the right to elect a government of their own choosing—one that ends the current regime’s domestic repression, nuclear-weapons program and global misbehavior.
Mr. Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ms. Dershowitz is vice president of government relations and strategy. They co-lead FDD’s Iran Human Rights Project.