Theresa Payton and Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad 

The internet has become a powerful force for global interconnectivity and democratization. What’s more, the internet has introduced new methods for collective mobilization, such as “e-rebellions” and virtual protests. The global pandemic has accelerated the use of cyberspace as a powerful venue for individuals, groups, and nations to share ideas, engage, mobilize, and challenge authoritarian states in an impactful way.

Meanwhile, the hacking of systems and the manipulation of our minds have turned into alarming threats. The Iranian regime uses a mix of cyber intrusions, domestic surveillance, digital manipulation campaigns, and terrorist activities to suppress the voice of dissent. The regime also hides behind cyber operatives and fake personas. They are inside digital infrastructure and active on social media platforms to advance a pro-Tehran policy agenda. Iran’s documented history of suppression includes arrests, executions and the filtering of all news through state-run media or even turning off Internet access for the public.

Last month the Iranian opposition was able to break through the regime’s cyber suppression.

On July 17th, Iran’s parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), hosted an impressive three-day virtual event by connecting 30,000 locations via Zoom.  The record-breaking virtual summit included live participants from the United States, Iran, and over 100 other countries. For three days, Iran’s main opposition hosted several hours of simulcast of speakers, testimonies, and musical performances from every corner of the world and in seven languages to deliver the message of a free Iran globally. The French news agency, Agence France Presse, declared the summit as the first “e-rebellion” staged against the regime in Iran.

Over 1,000 political dignitaries and personalities from multiple countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States (including members of the US Congress from both parties and both chambers), participated in the global cyber summit and declared support for the Iranian people’s call for a free Iran. Four prime ministers, eight foreign ministers, three former heads of parliaments, a former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, American diplomatic and military corps, and some technology leaders declared their solidarity with the parliament in exile. In her keynote speech, the president-elect of the NCRI, Maryam Rajavi, said the call for change in Iran was “heard during successive uprisings from December 2017 and January 2018 to November 2019 and January 2020.” She outlined the NCRI’s commitment to “overthrow the clerical regime,” “build a free and democratic Iran,” and to “remain faithful to people’s sovereignty and their vote” in a free Iran.

Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the event is how the high profile and elaborate virtual event survived a state-sponsored series of multipronged cyberattacks before, during and after the summit. According to an exiled Iranian news site, a “pre-planned attack targeted several” websites and the opposition’s television broadcast of the live event. With the use of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks during the event, Iran’s regime weaponized DDOS as a political suppression tool. These attacks also targeted the internet service provider (ISP) where hackers redirected searches about this group to malicious sites run by the Iranian regime. Clearly, by the reaction of Iran’s tyrants, one can tell how much it fears the NCRI and their message of a free Iran.

Nonetheless, the NCRI’s global cyber event was carried out without any disruption and it proved once again how the Internet continues to be a battleground between the Iranian people and the tyrants in power.  As the call for freedom and regime change grows louder in Iran, it is crucial to understand how the international community can stand on the side of the democracy movement by implementing effective measures to curb the regime’s cyber repression of the Iranian people. The Iranian regime uses a mix of these heavy-handed tactics along with subtler, more covert attacks and manipulation campaigns on social media to spread disinformation and fake news at a velocity and scale that would have been unheard of before the digital age. The cyber operatives acting on behalf of the Iranian regime seek to blunt the media’s ability to investigate their false dealings. They also attempt to co-opt the media narrative into shoring up their reputations at home and to support their agenda to demonize the voice of Iran’s opposition, mainly those affiliated with the NCRI.

Tehran’s hypocrisy is evident in the frequent use of online applications like Twitter by Iran’s Supreme Leader and many regime officials while the service, along with other popular social media applications, are blocked to ordinary Iranians. 

The use of cyber technology, mobile devices and messaging platforms continues to be a strategic tool in aiding the Iranian opposition and protesters to organize, exchange information between different locals, and get their message out to the rest of the world. The NCRI July 17th event demonstrated how the message of a free Iran can be amplified with the use of technology. Such events will most likely continue and will be amplified with the ongoing protests inside Iran. The time has come for a comprehensive cyber policy strategy across countries and the private sector to help enable the Iranian people and their resistance movement for change. It is critical to support the Iranian people’s call for access to the Internet free of the regime’s filtering and surveillance. It is critical to ensure the NCRI’s presence grows and remains unharmed against Tehran’s cyber surveillance, espionage, disinformation, and attacks at home and abroad.  The call to action is on the free world to support the rising voice for democracy in Iran that is led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi.