TEHRAN, Iran – Iran calls it the "soft war" with the West: Battles to control, defend and monitor the Internet and other high-level telecommunications. The latest move came quietly when the powerful Revolutionary Guard recently launched what it claims is a hack-proof communications network for its high-level commanders.
Largely overshadowed by the showdowns over Iran's nuclear program, the efforts to build a cyber-fortress have become a priority among leaders fearful of Internet espionage and virus attacks from abroad and seeking to choke off opposition outlets at home.
The drive also highlights the stepped up attempts by many nations — particularly across the Middle East — to filter the Web after social networking sites played such a crucial role in the Arab Spring uprisings.
In a video message for Iranian new year last month, President Barack Obama denounced what he called the "electronic curtain" that keeps ordinary Iranians from reaching out to Americans and the West.
"We are not in an imaginary state of threats or sanctions," Revolutionary Guard Deputy Cmdr. Hossein Salami told Guard leaders in late March as he inaugurated the new closed communications system called "Basir," or Perspective. "Threats and sanctions are practically being enforced against us. Communications have changed the picture of the world including threats and wars."
The system is vaguely described as a something akin to a closed mobile phone network, possibly involving special relay towers and passcodes.
The Guard's network is separate from Iran's wider goal of creating a so-called "clean" Internet, a plan not fully explained by authorities but apparently seeking to weed out non-sanctioned content.
The Guard's new communications system reflects the increased emphasis on high-level security amid tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli strike to stop what the West suspects is a program aimed at building weapons.
Basir was unveiled days after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the creation of an Internet oversight agency that included top military, security and political figures in the country's boldest attempt yet to control the Web.
The panel is headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and includes powerful figures in the security establishment such as the intelligence chief, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards and the country's top police chief.
Iranian officials have repeatedly claimed that websites with servers controlled from outside the country can't be trusted. The deputy intelligence chief in charge of technology, identified by the state only by his last name Ahangaran, was quoted in February as saying the "Internet is not an instrument of threat or espionage. It's a spy itself."
Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, called Google an "instrument of espionage" rather than a search engine.
Iran claims that it now has enough homegrown technology to sharply limit the reach of the Web or develop military communications with protective cocoons such as Basir.
"The armed forces had no trust in the telecommunication equipment produced by other countries. So, an indigenous multilayer nationwide system was designed and built," said an article in a magazine published by the Guard.
But Iran's civilian telecommunications officials have used technology from a host of foreign companies, including Nokia Siemens Network, to boost capabilities of monitoring mobile and Web traffic — particularly after the unprecedented street protests and clashes touched off by Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election.
The Guard — which already runs every key military and industrial program in Iran — has added cyber cop to its portfolio in recent years after virus attacks such as the highly specialized Stuxnet in 2010.
Iran has blamed Israel and the U.S. for Stuxnet, which targeted nuclear facilities and other industrial sites. Tehran acknowledged the malicious software affected a limited number of centrifuges, an essential tool used in nuclear fuel production. But Iran has said its scientists discovered and neutralized the malware before it could cause serious damage.
Iranian leaders also have long maintained that the Islamic Republic is subject to a "cultural invasion" by enemies aimed at promoting dissent and undermining the ruling system.
Officials have made various proposals to develop a type of homegrown Internet, but few details on the logistics have been disclosed. Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunications Reza Taqipour said the first phase of a "national Internet" will be launched by June.
Experts say this would require special servers controlled by Iran.
Iranian users currently have relatively wide access to the Web and often use filter-busting proxy websites to access blocked sites such as those of the political opposition or some Western governments.
Late last year, the Obama administration opened a "virtual embassy" website as part of Washington's attempts at outreach to Iranians despite three decades without diplomatic ties. The site was quickly blocked by Iranian authorities.
New rules announced earlier this year limited the speed of home Internet links, complicating links to video and other data-heavy downloads. It also required Internet cafe owners to keep customer logs and install surveillance cameras.
Experts in Internet technology question whether Iran will try to create a completely closed Web universe — which is possible but exceedingly complicated — or simply take cues from China's "Great Firewall" policies that tightly control the Web and cut links at any signs of politically uncomfortable chatter or postings.
"It would take years to engage the support of Iranian businesses and businesses from other countries that met Iran's approval to connect to a new Internet that was hosted only on Iranian-owned servers," said Jeffrey Carr, a cyber intelligence expert and consultant to U.S. and other governments on cyber defenses.
"If they think that they can set this up in a matter of months, it has to be a highly filtered Internet which is still hosted on the infrastructure of the World Wide Web," he added. "I really don't think anything else is feasibly possible in this short a period of time."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.