TEHRAN — An Iranian police unit that was formed this year to counter alleged Internet crimes is playing a key role in an escalating online conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
The “cyber police” force is part of a broad and largely successful government effort to block foreign Web sites and social networks deemed a threat to national security.
Iranian officials say they must control which sites Iranians are able to visit, to prevent spying and protect the public from “immoral” material. The United States, they charge, is waging a “soft war” against Iran by reaching out to Iranians online and inciting them to overthrow their leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday played into such accusations, saying U.S. officials had asked Twitter, the social networking site, to postpone online maintenance in 2009 so that it would be available for Iranian anti-government protesters organizing demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory.
Iran’s state radio responded Thursday, citing Clinton’s comments as proof that Washington is using U.S. Internet companies to influence events inside Iran. Tensions between the two countries are high following allegations that an Iranian American citizen had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington at the behest of the Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has denied the accusations, but the United States has called for tougher sanctions against Tehran.
In interviews this week with the Farsi-language channels of the Voice of America and the BBC, Clinton announced a U.S. plan to open a “virtual embassy” for Iran that would provide online information about visas and student programs.
But the initiative is likely to be thwarted by Iranian authorities, who are increasingly using filtering software to block access to sites such as CNN or to Web pages containing sensitive key words and phrases, such as “sex” and “velvet revolution.” At times, the Google search engine is blocked. Attempts to open such sites from Iran take the user to a page operated by the Communication and Information Technology Ministry that reads, “Dear user, according to the law you are not allowed to visit to this bad Web site.”
The page is now the seventh-most-visited in the country, according to Iranian online statistics monitors.
The only social media sites Iranians are allowed to access, such as Cloob.com, are locally hosted and limited in scope compared with Facebook.
A considerable number of Iran’s roughly 35 million Internet users manage to enter the forbidden sites through widely available but illegal “virtual private networks” — software that allows users to surf the Web through portals in other countries. But those users are also subject to scrutiny by Iran’s cyber police, who use alternative identities to roam social media networks.
This week, cyber police officers visited Facebook members in the central Iranian city of Natanz, urging them to avoid the site.
Authorities have also launched a campaign to convince young Iranians that using sites such as Facebook could endanger them and their country and that the cyber police unit, created in January as a separate entity within the national police force, is their friend.
At this month’s Digital Media Fair in Tehran, a showcase for locally made computer games and government-supported Web sites, portraits of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hung next to posters showing the Google logo replacing the field of stars on the American flag.
Moshen Emami, a tall man in a black suit with a lapel pin bearing the cyber police logo, welcomed groups of schoolgirls who had been bused in to see the exhibition.
In his flashy booth, flat-screen TVs displayed the words “soft war,” and assistants walked around explaining the dangers of the Internet. Zuckerberg, Jobs and other Internet entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley have assisted the U.S. government in attacking Iran in an “online proxy war,” Emami told a reporter.
“Facebook itself is not bad,” Emami said, acknowledging that he has four Facebook pages that he accesses using illegal software. “But our people are using it wrong.”
Emami, who insisted that he was a private individual and not a member of the cyber police, said that educating Iranians in proper Internet use was better than blocking Web sites. He referred a visitor to a huge booth at the center of the exhibition that was operated by the cyber police unit.
There, dozens of people listened to a workshop on how to prevent hacking, while officers with brand-new iPad2 tablets under their arms talked to boys with spiked hair.
“We are here to create a cyber police force inside the people’s mind,” said Hesamedin Mojtahed, the officer in charge of the booth. “People want to be informed of the dangers on the Internet,” he said. “We are here for them.”
The Internet also undermines religious values, Emami said, adding that young women do not realize that images posted online showing them without a head scarf could be used against them. “Lives are being ruined every day,” he said.
Four young women wearing the traditional black chador, all of them computer engineering students, said the exhibition had been an eye-opener.
“We always thought that the government is blocking all those Web sites to make our lives boring,” said Mahyar, 22, who did not give her family name. “But today we were told that it is the United States that is purposely blocking some information for Iranian users. Clearly, they are our real enemies.”
“We need to be protected,” she added, admitting that she had seen some pictures online that she shouldn’t have. “There are many dangers out there.”