If the west really wants to support the green movement it should shower the country in free satellite internet access
By Reza Zia-Ebrahimi
February 24, 2010
Washington and other western capitals seem to lack an efficient policy to support Iran’s protest movement. They wish that the so-called green movement could replace the current military-messianic alliance at the country’s helm with a more reasonable interlocutor that would be amenable to solve Iran’s nuclear dossier, and co-operate in other arenas, chiefly Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, thanks to a number of systemic changes, direct logistical, financial or military assistance cannot be contemplated. Yet, there is one option that might prove a highly efficient way of supporting the green movement while avoiding any direct entanglement into Iran’s affairs: bombarding the country with high-speed internet access.
The internet is a key element in the events currently unfolding in Iran. What has been dubbed the “Twitter revolution” makes extensive use of social networking platforms to disseminate the movement’s messages and organise protests. In a country where fair journalistic reporting has become impossible because of government restrictions, Iran’s citizen-journalists have used internet resources to provide the world with images of government violence. Similarly, the government seems to be aware of the power of images and information.
One of the pillars of its repressive policy has been media propaganda depicting protesters as vandals and stooges of foreign powers. In pursuing this policy, the government actively curtails alternative sources of information in the country (especially the BBC and VOA broadcasts in Persian), thoroughly filters sensitive websites used by protesters to communicate (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc) and reduces internet speed to just about nil to render video streaming or uploading impossible. It has even .
The technology to overcome this already exists. Households and businesses in areas with poor infrastructure through satellites. A Japanese satellite, , was launched in 2008 of Japan and other parts of East Asia with the world’s highest-speed internet connection using 45cm aperture antennas (the same size as existing communications satellite antennas widely used in Iran). The Japanese intend to expand this project into an international one.
A number of satellites currently covering Iran’s territory can be used to provide internet access. Indeed, the US army, through private subcontractors, successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan (where infrastructure is poor or inexistent) with near-high-speed satellite access.
The policy framework for such an endeavour is also in place in the US. a rather secretive bill dubbed the Voice Act (Victims of Iranian Censorship) last summer. Most of its multimillion dollar appropriation has been earmarked “to expand Farsi language broadcasting into Iran”. However, it involves a $20m budget for the “development of technologies that will enhance the Iranian people’s ability to access and share information; counter efforts to block, censor, or monitor the internet in Iran; and engage in internet-based education programmes and other exchanges online”.
President Barack Obama signed the act into law last October, but it is unclear if unrestricted internet access for Iranians is one of Washington’s priorities at the moment. It should be. Showering Iran with satellite internet would allow Iranians to efficiently fight the regime’s monopoly over information, further weakening its legitimacy. This in turn will grow the ranks of the green movement, as more citizens will be able to compare the state media with other sources, and it promises to deepen the rift within the regime itself and among the rank-and-file of the security apparatus. It will allow the Iranian citizen-journalists to wider circulate images and videos of government violence, and coordinate more efficiently their demonstrations.
This would be an invaluable help for a movement that the government can currently easily hinder with telecommunication cuts in the wake of large demonstrations. Most importantly, and from a US policy perspective, it would empower Iranians without committing troops or confronting the Iranian regime directly, solving the dilemma of American non-interference.
Complications might, of course, arise. The Iranian government can crack down on the use of satellite dishes, as it has consistently done in the past, or attempt to jam the signal. The whole project might prove costly, perhaps cost more than the Voice Act’s $20m budget. But is a cyber war with Tehran’s regime not a more palatable route than the other “options” that remain relentlessly on the table?