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Civil Cyberwar In Iran

As Iran’s hard-line government struggles to put down post-election protests, we may be seeing the first example of a civil war fought in cyberspace.

On the streets the situation is nowhere near civil war, at least not yet. Though crowds reported to be in the hundreds of thousands marched Monday in Tehran to protest the allegedly rigged re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the opposition has been nearly entirely nonviolent. One exception came on Monday when protesters surrounded a building occupied by pro-government militia. Somebody — protesters blame government agents — threw incendiaries at the building, and gunmen inside the compound opened fire on the demonstrators. The government later said seven were killed and 29 were wounded in the skirmish.

Yesterday’s protest crowds were smaller. Opponents largely stayed home, heeding calls by opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi to avoid further violent confrontations. Meanwhile, the government organized its own supportive street demonstrations. It seems to be a too-familiar story of an authoritarian government that holds all the cards being able to outlast and overpower its adversaries.

But something else is happening below the surface. In the privacy of their internet-connected homes, and with the help of their camera phones and iPods, opponents are fighting the regime to a draw in the battle to control the flow of information.

Authorities cut off text messaging service as voting began last Friday to deprive anti-government candidates of one of their chief organizing tools. Opponents, however, have proved adaptable, using web sites like Facebook and messaging services like Twitter to keep one another informed. The government responded by blocking those sites and, today, it warned Iranian bloggers and web site operators that they face legal action if they fail to remove posts that “create tension.” The opposition has been quick to adopt software and techniques used by other repressed groups, such as China’s Falun Gong, to get around the digital barricades. As a result, news and images of Iran’s confrontations have circulated widely within the country and around the world, even though the government has largely succeeded in muzzling the world’s press by banning on-the-street reporting.

Some opponents carried matters a step further yesterday by attacking the government’s own web sites, rendering them temporarily unavailable. This underscores the fact that the regime itself relies on the tools that it is trying to deny to its opposition. The government’s inability to get on top of the story has forced it to make at least token concessions, including a partial recount of the ballots.

The Ahmadinejad government most likely will survive this confrontation, given its backing by the ruling mullahs and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. In any event, it would be wrong to view this as a battle between totalitarianism and democracy. Ahmadinejad’s opponents may be more moderate, but they also come from the elite that has ruled Iran since its 1979 revolution. Those crowds in the street are pressing for a new election, but not a new constitution.

Still, there is no doubt that this week’s events in Tehran are getting close attention from thugs who rule in capitals around the world. In Beijing and Moscow, in Havana and Cairo, the resilience of the Iranian opposition must be disconcerting, to say the least.

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