TEHRAN, Iran – A glimpse into the shadow world of Iran’s main spy agency is now a click away.
In an unexpected display of outreach, the Intelligence Ministry now hosts a website with addresses of provincial offices, appeals for tips and anti-American essays that mock rising obesity rates, large prison populations and school shootings.
There’s no mission statement on the site, but it appears part of stepped-up attempts by Iran’s leadership to promote national unity and project its authority amid Western sanctions and international isolation. After protests in Tehran two weeks ago over Iran’s slumping currency, the nationally broadcast Friday prayers tapped heavily into the theme of shared sacrifice in times of trouble.
The new website also fits into Iran’s narrative of fighting a “soft war” in cyberspace against Western cultural and political influences. For more than a year, Iran’s leaders have touted plans for a “clean” Internet that could presumably try to block Western content, but Web experts have raised questions about its technical feasibility.
“The ministry is going online to make its presence known to the Iranian public, especially the young who use the Internet,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. “This is basically a show of force.”
What the new Farsi-language site, www.vaja.ir, lacks in innovation (mostly a simple list of stories and links), it makes up for in pure anti-American bluntness.
Click on “America from a Different Perspective.” The list of shame includes the huge U.S. prison population, rising obesity, school shooting statistics, why supporters of euthanasia seek to “kill grandparents” and how giant chain stores such as Walmart are smothering small businesses.
Another essay claims the chief goal of U.S. economic sanctions is not to force concessions over Tehran’s nuclear program, but to incite civil unrest. It specifically cites U.S. diplomat Jillian Burns, who set up Washington’s first Iranian monitoring office in Dubai in 2006 and is currently the consul in Herat in western Afghanistan, where Iran has strong cultural and economic ties.
Tehran-based political commentator Hamid Reza Shokouhi sees the website – the Web name is the Farsi acronym for the Intelligence Ministry – as part of a new image-building campaign by Iran’s ruling system in the Internet era, which has left authorities in a constant struggle to block opposition sites and Western influences.
“Economic and military threats against Iran have increased. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to reduce the gap between the people and the ruling system,” said Shokouhi.
“The website is a move in this direction. This is a big deal.”