Iran: How Iranian authorities have been fighting the ‘Soft War’ online

Iran: How Iranian authorities have been fighting the ‘Soft War’ online - Digital

A billboard of the Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei glows in the night time.

Despite being one of the region’s leading cyberpowers, Iran is one of the worst violators of international human rights standards relating to the Internet, routinely limiting freedom of expression online, and regularly using online tactics to restrict rights exercised offline.

Released today, the second part of ARTICLE 19’s ground-breaking report series, Tightening the Net, The Soft War and Cyber Tactics in Iran presents detailed research on exactly how the Iranian government uses online tactics to suppress of freedom of expression as part of its ideological ‘Soft War’.

Much of the targeting of individuals and groups online is thought to be carried out by the ‘Iranian Cyber Army’ (ICA). While the origin and structure of the ICA group is extremely difficult to establish, the report presents clear evidence of online actors using tactics which align with those of the Iranian authorities, and even shift with their political agenda.

Naghmeh Shahsavandi spent 75 days in Evin prison (Section 2A) in 2013.  Released on $600,000 USD bail she was subsequently sentenced to seven years in jail for insulting the Supreme Leader of Iran, insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic, and colluding against the regime. She was sentenced to an additional 91 days for publishing pornographic material online, and was accused of being the administrator of a Facebook page which had more than four million likes.

Upon her arrest she realised that she had been under surveillance, and that all of her text messages had been intercepted by the authorities.

Shahsavandi described her ordeal:

“Most of the interrogations were concerned with details about my private life. They put a lot of pressure on me to obtain the names of the other system administrators and pressured me to incriminate my associates. They even brought us together to confront each other. They would film the interrogations and asked me questions about the details.”

By deploying cyber tactics including hacking, online identity theft, intrusive malware, online monitoring, and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against civil society, political opposition, and activists, the authorities are able to monitor individuals and crackdown on dissent. Individuals targeted for arrest are often subjected to torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation, where authorities force them to reveal details on other targets.

Content restrictions, as well as the production and distribution of state-sanctioned content, are used to further consolidate ideological control online.

The report makes a series of recommendations, both to Iranian authorities and Iran’s online community, aimed at protecting Iranians’ ability to exercise their right freedom of expression and information online.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the government of Iran to stop the blocking and filtering of online content under the justification of the ’Soft War’, and to respect the online privacy and anonymity of its people by ending unlawful surveillance. We seek the repeal of the Computer Crimes Law in its entirety, and ask the Government to enact comprehensive legal reform and end support for online groups and networks engaged in online hacking and attacks.


For more information, please contact:

ARTICLE 19 Press team

Tel: +44 (0) 20 3290 9308

Email: [email protected]