Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (Photo Credit Iranian Supreme Leader’s Office, Zuma Press)
Russia is helping Iran gain advanced digital surveillance capabilities, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on 27 March.
Citing anonymous sources, the WSJ claimed that Tehran is seeking closer cooperation with Moscow on cyber warfare as part of a growing military alliance between Iran and Russia, which Washington sees as a threat.
The sources claimed that Moscow had previously declined to share digital-offensive capabilities with Tehran for fear the technology would proliferate in the black market but has determined that the benefits of establishing a closer military relationship with Iran outweigh any drawbacks. The sources speculated that Moscow has now likely already shared advanced software with Tehran that would allow it to hack the phones and systems of both internal dissidents and foreign adversaries.
The allegations regarding cyberwarfare follow previous allegations by US officials that Iran sold Russia drones to wage attacks in Ukraine and has agreed to provide short-range missiles, tanks, and artillery rounds to Moscow.
On 26 February, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian rejected claims that Iran had provided drones and other weapons to Russia for use in the conflict with Ukraine.
He stated that “certain Western parties only make claims and do not present any document” to prove their allegations.
“The West must stop such a futile game. Iran favors peace and opposes war,” Amir-Abdollahian added.
In November 2022, Amirabdollahian stated that Iran had only provided Russia with a limited number of drones months before the war broke out in Ukraine and that although Iran has had a long-standing defense cooperation with Moscow, it pursues a resolution of the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy.
The WSJ also reported that according to Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research center, a Russian company with ties to the Ministry of Defense named PROTEI Ltd has begun providing internet-censorship software to Iranian mobile-phone firm Ariantel. Citizen Lab claimed to have evidence that the PROTEI tools are part of a mobile-phone system that would “enable state authorities to directly monitor, intercept, redirect, degrade or deny all Iranians’ mobile communications, including those who are presently challenging the regime.”
According to Annie Fixler, a cyber policy analyst at the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Iran’s cyberwarfare program originated as part of its response to protests in 2009 following claims that then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the election. The Iranian government’s focus then was on surveillance, censorship, and crushing dissent, Fixler claimed.
The 2009 protests, known as the so-called Green Revolution, were supported by the US government. US efforts to teach Iranian cyber activists to use online technologies to foment unrest, including the software known as Tor, were part of Hillary Clinton-led State Department’s “Internet Freedom Agenda.”
This agenda later played a crucial role in promoting US efforts at regime change in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Jillian Yorke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which also promoted Tor and participated in the training of Iranian, Syrian, and Egyptian cyber-dissidents, later admitted that “I do fundamentally believe that the State Department’s ‘Internet freedom agenda’ is at heart an agenda of regime change.”