By Michael Horowitz, Sam Brownback and Mark Palmer
Military action and “containment” through economic sanctions may not be the only options available to confront the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions. In our view, there is a third option – one with the potential to rapidly, peacefully and fundamentally undermine that regime and one that we believe the Israeli government can bring into play. This option would place the power of the Internet at the service of the Iranian people.
Events in Iran demonstrate that its regime views a free and unmonitored Internet as a profound threat to its short-term survival. Only on Thursday, it was reported that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has appointed a high-level commission to “safeguard the national and cultural values” of Iran from the dangers of the Internet. This move follows upon past actions by the regime to impose country-wide blackouts in advance of elections and anniversaries of significant dissident demonstrations. Credible reports indicate that the regime plans to unveil an “Iranian Internet” designed to give it total control over the flow of information inside the country. Simply put, Iran’s Islamist leadership understands that a citizenry given the power of a free Internet could rapidly undo the very foundations of its power.
The regime’s fears are based on experience, for the digital sophistication of Iran’s young people fueled the 2009 Green Revolution and is critical to the growth of dissent within its borders. Then, as now, hundreds of thousands of Iranians tapped into Internet “firewall circumvention” programs to organize countrywide protests and share their stories with the rest of the world. These programs allow users to connect to a network of foreign servers whose IP addresses are changed thousands of times per hour, and whose encrypted contents are made indistinguishable from e-commerce traffic. On given days, traffic to some circumvention systems reached as many as 200,000 Iranian users who registered more than 100 million hits as they bypassed the regime’s Internet content filters and pervasive monitoring systems.
Unfortunately, the power of these programs has been and continues to be restrained by server capacity limitations. During key moments of organized opposition, including the months surrounding the 2009 elections, surging Iranian traffic overloaded the capacities of circumvention programs and caused them to crash. Fear of demand spikes has forced key providers to slow down and ration their service, and has precluded them from releasing protocols that would permit user access via cell phones and mobile devices.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long understood the power of the Internet to undermine the Iranian regime. In December 2009, this newspaper quoted him as noting to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “[u]sing the power of the Internet and of Twitter against the Iranian regime is a tremendous thing that the United States can do.”
Unfortunately, this has not occurred. While the U.S. Congress has provided close to $100 million to foster Internet freedom in closed societies, and has specifically called for a robust initiative directed at Iran, these efforts have been thwarted by the State Department. Senior department officials have publicly deprecated the importance of firewall circumvention programs and have sat on millions of dollars of congressional appropriations for long periods of time.
An important basis of the State Department’s reticence lies in the fact that some of the most successful circumvention services have been developed by Chinese dissidents. This has caused resistance to the release of appropriated funds to key providers for the reason cited by an anonymous senior official quoted by The Washington Post: fear that the Chinese government would “go ballistic” if this were done.
Prompt and merit-based expenditure of unspent State Department funds would increase uncensored Internet service in Iran by orders of magnitude. In fact, we believe that Iran’s Internet firewalls could rapidly be made significantly inoperative by the use of no more than $20 million dollars in Internet freedom appropriations now sitting idle in State Department budget accounts.
As recently as this week, President Obama asked Israel to wait for nonmilitary options to take effect – doing so while reiterating his pledge that “no option is off the table” for dealing with Iran. For this reason, we believe that if Israel were to define immediate implementation of a robust firewall circumvention initiative as a critical marker of American resolve toward Iran, it would be very difficult for the U.S. government not to rapidly do so.
Thus, Israel is in a position to ensure the achievable objective of allowing young Iranians to freely and without fear communicate via the Internet with each other and the rest of the world. Such a step would permit Iranians to access YouTube, Twitter and Facebook on the same at-will basis enjoyed by Israelis and Americans. It would allow world leaders and, yes, the prime minister of Israel, to conduct interactive town meetings with hundreds of thousands of unmonitored and uncensored Iranians. These would be developments whose effectiveness has been confirmed by the regime’s own fears and actions.
An Iranian regime besieged by citizen activism and protest should be a vital objective of all countries seeking to prevent the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror from acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus, as officials in Israel and the United States continue the dialogue begun by the visit of the prime minister to Washington, we hope he will remind President Obama that the United States holds the key to breaking down the walls whose continued viability keeps Iran’s regime in control of its people.
Michael Horowitz is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.
Sam Brownback is governor of the State of Kansas. He previously served two terms as a U.S. senator from Kansas, serving on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.
Mark Palmer is a trustee of Freedom House and a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary.
This article was published in Haaretz and is reprinted with permission,