This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Nike Ching contributed from the State Department.
The Trump administration has expressed concern about reports that Iranian authorities have made progress in developing a domestic intranet and firewall system to shield Iran from the global internet.
In a written response to VOA Persian questions, a State Department spokesperson said its concern centered on new measures in Iran to create a “so-called National Information Network” and “repress internet freedom through draconian surveillance.”
“Countries that take such desperate actions prove to the world that they are afraid of their own people,” the State Department said in its May 23 statement.
Recent Iranian state media reports have cited officials as saying Iran’s yearslong development of the intranet and firewall system that it calls the National Information Network (NIN) is 80% complete.
The reports described the NIN as an “ongoing project to develop a secure and stable infrastructure network in Iran.” Officials have said the NIN will protect Iran from cyberattacks and enable Iranians to access high-speed, low-cost and Islamic-friendly content through an intranet isolated from the rest of the online world.
Iran’s state-approved Financial Tribune newspaper has said the NIN comprises several projects, including the expansion of the local fiber-optic network, installation of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) and giving a boost to Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).
The first mention of Iran’s NIN being 80% complete came in reported remarks by Iran’s Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) Secretary Saied Reza Ameli to a May 19 ceremony marking World Telecommunication Day. SCCR is a policymaking body that has an influential role in shaping internet governance in Iran in accordance with Islamist principles.
?Iran’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi also cited the figure in a tweet on Sunday, saying 80% of Iran’s tasks in relation to the NIN have been completed.
The two officials’ statements did not explain what those tasks involved. But some of the recent state media reports said Iran has connected 80% of its rural population to the NIN.
Former U.S. National Intelligence Manager for Iran Norman Roule, in a recent VOA Persian phone interview, said Iran has been developing the NIN since 2006 with several goals in mind.
“By 2006, the Iranian regime saw that the internet meant a vast amount of foreign culture coming into the country. It also allowed opposition elements to freely interact and promulgate their ideas among the Iranian people. And this was intolerable,” Roule said. “The NIN allows Iran to monitor what its people are looking at and make progress in turning off the virtual private networks (VPNs) they have used to get around censorship of foreign websites. So in essence, this is about stifling opposition.”
Iranians have used VPNs to access foreign websites and social media sites that their government has blocked in recent years. In a speech Sunday reported by state news agency ISNA, Iranian Brigadier-General Golamreza Jalali of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said Tehran will tighten blockages of foreign social media sites if recent U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate into a war, in order to stop the U.S. government from using them to influence Iranian public opinion.
In his May 19 speech, SCCR Secretary Ameli said Iran’s investment in the NIN has amounted to 120 trillion rials in government funds and 70 trillion rials in private sector funds, or $2.85 billion and $1.66 billion, respectively, according to Iran’s official exchange rate.
“There is an economic benefit to the NIN, too, because it creates an Iranian cyber industry,” Roule said. He said the only apps and software permitted in the NIN are those created within Iran, which he described as one of the foremost producers of engineers in the world.
But Roule said the exclusion of foreign technology from the NIN also could have a negative impact on Iran’s job market.
“It may well contribute to the brain drain that Iran is seeing, because their best engineers want to work with the best technologies being developed across the region, and they simply will not be in Iran," he added.
Iranian ICT Minister Azari Jahromi, who appeared at the same May 19 event as Ameli, used the event to highlight the NIN’s role in protecting Iranian industry from external cyberthreats, such as the Stuxnet computer worm, which damaged Tehran’s nuclear enrichment facilities in 2010.
State media said Azari Jahromi announced that Iran has installed the NIN’s firewall on industrial control systems manufactured by German conglomerate Siemens and will soon do the same for industrial control systems made by other brands. Industrial control systems are used to operate and automate industrial processes.
Siemens’ website says it has contributed to key infrastructure projects in Iran for almost 150 years. A Germany-based Siemens spokesman declined to comment to VOA Persian on Iran’s assertion that Siemens equipment has been incorporated into the NIN.
“It is not imprudent that in time of a conflict you would want to maintain infrastructure if you were under international cyberattack,” Roule said. “The NIN has advantages in terms of cyber protection, but by isolating itself from the world, Iran is relying on decades-old cyber technologies that are increasingly creaky.”
The retired, 34-year veteran of the CIA said it would be a challenge for Iran to bring those dated technologies into the NIN. “I suspect that they probably have a lot more problems than they are willing to admit,” he said.
In its statement to VOA Persian, the State Department said it will continue to work with technology companies and the U.S. Treasury Department to support the free flow of information in Iran.