The Regime's New Dread in Iran

A supporter of Iranian reform carries a green flag in Tehran in 2009. Carlos Cazalis / Corbis

Roozbeh, a 26-year-old university student in Tehran, considers himself a revolutionary. Never mind that he rarely leaves his room at his mother's house. "Many people of my generation hate this regime," he tells NEWSWEEK via Skype, asking that his last name be kept private. He says he spends 14 hours a day dodging government-imposed firewalls to share news with other Iranian cyberactivists inside and outside Iran. His strategy resonates with leaders of the country's opposition Green Movement, who are now shunning street protests in favor of online organizing.

Roozbeh scares Iran's current rulers. In public they deny it, of course, dismissing him and his allies as "losers with no significant power base," in the words of Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the mockery rings false: in fact, the Revolutionary Guards have grown worried enough to establish a Permanent Soft War Secretariat, dedicated to plugging what the Guards' commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, calls "the loopholes in our soft defense mechanism." The massive demonstrations of 2009 have migrated behind closed doors, unseen by pro-regime Basij thugs, where activists spread the word of resistance via instant message, satellite television, and what authorities fear most: social networking.

Their vehicle of choice is Facebook, as evidenced by the Revolutionary Guards–produced cautionary TV program A Monster Called Facebook, in which founder Mark Zuckerberg is depicted as a Zionist spy. In coming months, the Guards are also expected to beef up their new Facebook Infiltration Task Force, which prowls the site hunting for critics of the regime and blocking ordinary Iranians' access. It's become almost routine for Iranian travelers at the Tehran airport to be stopped for questioning about their use of the world's largest social-networking site.

The regime is waging a similar fight against bootleg television. Owning a satellite dish is illegal, but that hasn't stopped millions of households from switching off drab state-produced religious programming and turning instead to outlaw channels run by Iranians living in the West. In recent months, authorities have intensified the battle, jamming transmissions and raiding entire neighborhoods to seize dish antennas from rooftops and impose fines up to $2,000 per dish. But hours after the cops drive off, new antennas begin popping up.

No one knows how many Iranians have joined the electronic underground. But the Revolutionary Guards aren't having much success shutting it down. The regime may reduce available bandwidth on tense days, but news always sneaks through somehow. Members of the online resistance see to it. "We're ready for a democratic regime in place of this tyranny," Roozbeh says, as he calls an end to the conversation. He clicks a link and shares a fresh batch of protest pictures with his 3,000 friends. And every one of them has other friends.