A glimpse into the shadow world of Iran's main spy agency is now a click away: In an unexpected display of outreach, the Intelligence Ministry now hosts a website with addresses of provincial offices, appeals for tips and anti-American essays.
There is no mission statement on the site, but it appears part of stepped-up attempts by Iran's leadership to promote national unity and project its authority amid Western sanctions and international isolation.
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After protests in Tehran last week over Iran's slumping currency, the nationally broadcast Friday prayers tapped heavily into the theme of shared sacrifice in times of trouble. And on Wednesday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the sanctions as a "war against a nation."
The new website also fits into Iran's narrative of fighting a "soft war" in cyberspace against Western cultural and political influences. For more than a year, Iran's leaders have touted plans for a "clean" Internet that could presumably try to block Western content, but Web experts have raised questions about its technical feasibility.
Promoting patriotism? (Photo: AFP)
"The ministry is going online to make its presence known to the Iranian public, especially the young who use the Internet," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. "This is basically a show of force."
What the new Farsi-language site, "vaja.ir" – the Farsi acronym for the Intelligence Ministry – lacks in innovation, it makes up for in pure anti-American bluntness.
A main part of the website, titled "America from a Different Perspective," leads to a "list of shame" that includes the huge US prison population, rising obesity, school shooting statistics, why supporters of euthanasia seek to "kill grandparents" and how giant chain stores such as Walmart are smothering small businesses.
Virtual smoke screen?
Another essay claims the chief goal of US economic sanctions is not to force concessions over Tehran's nuclear program, but to incite civil unrest.
Tehran-based political commentator Hamid Reza Shokouhi sees the website as part of a new image-building campaign by the Iranian regime in the Internet era, which has left authorities in a constant struggle to block opposition sites and Western influences.
"Economic and military threats against Iran have increased. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to reduce the gap between the people and the ruling system," said Shokouhi. "The website is a move in this direction. This is a big deal."
It is far from the first time that Iran's leadership has planted its flag in cyberspace.
Websites have operated for years for Khamenei and others including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Farsi, English and Arabic. More than a dozen state-run and semiofficial news services also flood the Web around the clock.
"The leadership, particularly within the hardline elements of the Intelligence Ministry, has an obsession with the notion that Washington is coordinating a soft revolution to unseat the Islamic Republic," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Last week, a US broadcast oversight board accused Iran of jamming regional radio and television programming that includes the Persian services for the Voice of America and the BBC.
On Monday, two days after the website was launched, Iran's Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi claimed that Iran's secret services have the upper hand in the Web war with the West.
"The intelligence apparatus confronts enemy measures in the cyber front," the official IRNA news agency quoted Moslehi as saying.
A journalist at Tehran's moderate Shargh newspaper, Soroush Farhadian, interprets the new website as an effort by intelligence agency to gain its own voice.
"One of the objectives is to demonstrate its independent position rather than speaking through the semiofficial news agencies," he said.
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