- Associated Press - Thursday, October 11, 2012

TEHRAN — A glimpse into the shadow world of Iran’s main spy agency is just a click away.

In an unexpected display of outreach, the Intelligence Ministry is hosting 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 to be part of stepped-up attempts by Iran’s leadership to promote national unity and project authority amid Western sanctions and international isolation.

After protests in Tehran last week over Iran’s slumping currency, the nationally broadcast Friday prayers tapped heavily into the theme of shared sacrifice in times of trouble.

And on Wednesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the sanctions as a “war against a nation.”

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 presumably could try to block Western content, but Web analysts 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 Wal-Mart 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.

There was no immediate comment from the State Department.

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 Mr. Shokouhi. “The website is a move in this direction. This is a big deal.”

It’s far from the first time that Iran’s leadership has planted its flag in cyberspace. Websites have operated for years for Ayatollah Khamenei and others, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — in Farsi, English and Arabic.

More than a dozen state-run and semiofficial news services also flood the Web around the clock.

“The leadership, particularly within the hard-line elements of the Intelligence Ministry, has an obsession with the notion that Washington is coordinating a soft revolution to unseat the Islamic republic,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Part of Iran’s counterstrategy appears to be a kind of information overload in response to U.S. initiatives, such as the State Department’s launch last year of a “virtual embassy” in English and Farsi that seeks to reach out to ordinary Iranians. The site was quickly blocked by Iranian authorities, but firewall bypasses are widely used by Iran’s young and tech-skilled population.



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