It's not just President Trump's tweets in Farsi.
Complementing the president's rhetorical support for Iranian protesters, the U.S. government is engaged in less public programs to help Iranian protesters now taking to the streets. They provide the positive counterpoint to Trump's excesses, such as his recent threat to Iranian cultural sites.
The critical point here is that this is about giving Iranians the tools to campaign for their own freedom and future, rather than interfering with Iranian domestic politics or instigating protests. The U.S. programs are not a 1953 coup part deux, but a provision to help those already on the streets struggle for their freedom.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the point man for these efforts, centered at the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community.
The story begins in early 2017, with then-CIA director, Pompeo. Determined to escalate the CIA's activities against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's regime, Pompeo unified Iran operations under a specific mission center and aggressively minded chief. What followed were successful U.S. operations to obstruct Iranian nuclear activities, contest the regime's external activities, recruit Iranian officials (including senior officials), and identify those behind the repression of Iran's population. The mission center's activities now define Pompeo's push to see the CIA accept greater operational risks. The current director, Gina Haspel, has continued in this vein.
Pompeo again emphasized Iran operations on becoming secretary of state. And today, alongside its counterproliferation and counterterrorism activities, the United States now has significant human rights centered programs to help Iranians. While Britain's MI6 and France's DGSE actively work with the U.S. intelligence community on counterproliferation and counterterrorism issues, these human rights programs are something that the U.S. does largely alone.
One element involves assisting satellite streaming services in penetrating extensive Iranian censorship platforms. But a key focus is helping protesters to get their messages out. Iranian activists have shown courage and skill in rapidly getting videos out onto the internet during major crackdowns. But they face real challenges. So to give them a helping hand, sources tell me that the U.S. facilitates access to virtual private networks that allow internet connectivity outside of censor constraint. These VPNs transmit data through encrypted internet tunnels, protecting users from Iranian counterintelligence activities to detect and disrupt them.
But what happens when Iran's government shuts down the nation's internet service entirely, as during the November 2019 energy price protests?
Well, Iranian activists have to travel to Iran's border areas to jump on foreign networks. But a new development, as one senior administration official tells me, is that the U.S. has enabled protesters to get their messages out even "when the internet is shutdown." The official emphasized that while this effort is limited in scale, it is a positive work in progress.
The administration's countering of Iranian oppression doesn't begin and end with assistance to the protesters.
The U.S. intelligence community also provides secured communication platforms revamped following disastrous security breaches to allow its Iranian government sources to provide timely intelligence without compromising themselves. This allows U.S. officials to quickly learn the nature and human cost of Iranian security crackdowns. An important advantage in the context of the Iranian regime's particular penchant for deception.
Ultimately, we should be clear-eyed about what this effort represents. The U.S. is better enabling Iranians to get their message out to the world and petition for better lives. This is not aggressive U.S. interventionism in the vein of armed support for anti-regime groups. It is human rights advocacy in digital form.
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