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Dissent Lives in Iranian CyberSpace, Despite Regime's Attempt to Crackdown

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 (AFP)

Despite the Tehran regime’s best efforts to silence its youth -- both literally and virtually -- Persian-language cyberspace is alive with dissent, and intensely focused on what is going on not just in Iran, but throughout the Arab world.

The scope of the postings and websites are wide-ranging. A well-known Green Movement website has reported on recent meetings between Syrian security officials and Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Radan of the Iranian police, who is reputed to have presided over the ruthless clampdown against Iranian protests following the June 2009 elections. That’s among the biggest stories on Balatarin, one of Iran’s most popular platforms for information sharing.

It strikes a chord with those who saw their own demonstrations violently quashed. “Whether Iran or Syria, the dictator has to go,” read one posting.

“They say bin Laden is dead. Allah willing, someone should come and kill this Monkey (Radan),” read another posting. “There are not just one or two bin Ladens. This sullied Iranian regime has a factory production line of bin Ladens.”

The Iranian government is sensitive to this explosion of acrimony and online mud-slinging. Mohammad Ali Jafari, an official with the Revolutionary Guard, has declared Iran is in “a state of online soft-war” that is “more dangerous than a military confrontation.” 

Iran's parliament has reportedly earmarked $500 million for a cyberwarfare campaign, and there is something called the “Basij cyber-committee” boast of training “1,500 active bloggers engaged in battle.”

But the government efforts may backfire. Iran is in the throes of its own WikiLeaks drama, as information purportedly leaked from a closed chat room of the government’s cyber-savvy foot soldiers offers chilling insight into the mentality of the suppressors of dissent.

In one of the chat room leaks, pro-regime users discuss the benefits of spreading misinformation to news agencies, such as passing on details of a nasty human rights abuse story, only to subsequently have it disproved, allowing the regime to show up foreign news agencies as anti-Iranian, and propagandist.

In another leaked discussion, regime cyber-savvy loyalists suggest flooding call-in shows on the Voice of America or BBC Persian with pro-regime sentiment.

The response from the regime’s critics has been predictably biting.

“You couldn’t secure a single [chat] room and then you want to save your decomposing regime,” read one post.

The chat room, whose contents have spilled over into open cyberspace, come from a service called Friend Feed. There is no way to verify these leaks are, in fact, from government sources.

But none of the users, who include prominent Basij militia activists and bloggers such as Mohammad-Massih Mahdavi and Mohammad-Saleh Meftah, who have met with government officials and even Iran’s supreme leader in recent years have contested the validity of the leaks. Screenshots on the site are also marked with the logo of the Revolutionary Guard -- the unregulated use of which is a serious crime in Iran.

Others in the pro-regime chat room leak posts about spying on “Green dissidents” by befriending them on Facebook, to monitor them and their plans.

Anti-regime bloggers have responded by noting exchanges between pro-regime forces are devoid of talk about Islam or piety and, in fact, demonstrate rather cynical calculations like the scramble for precious budget allocations.

In another exchange, chat room users complain about members not turning up to a meeting of the Basij, Iran’s paramilitary youth organization. “If you need a motivation to turn up, we should make them mixed-sex, and everyone would come,” one commentator posted.

Fear of events sweeping the region is reflected in another exchange, on the eve of the Feb. 14 protests. “I am really worried,” writes one regime loyalist. “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, because of Egypt. I just feel it’s all too serious now."

Another exchange could be viewed in a particularly disturbing light. The chat was about a beautiful dissident poet named Hila Sedighi. One in the pro-regime chat room writes, “Oh, my heart,” while another chimes in, “I wish I could be her interrogator.” The undertones are sinister, given the allegations of sexual assaults in Iranian prisons.

Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in the London bureau. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @kellogglondon