The Supreme Council of Cyberspace: Centralizing Internet Governance in Iran

Co-authored with the  Iran Media Program.

In March 2012, the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei issued a directive establishing a new centralized agency responsible for managing the country’s cyber policies. The body, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), is tasked with formulating Iran’s Internet policies as well as for devising plans to regulate its use in accordance with the objectives of the Iranian Supreme Leader.

The creation of a new supreme body exclusively in charge of cyber policies demonstrates the increasingly prominent role the Internet plays within Iran’s broader national security and international communications agendas. It also signals an effort by authorities to centralize both the bureaucratic and technical aspects of Iran’s Internet infrastructure in response to the country’s ongoing “soft war” with the West. The SCC has been not only put in charge of managing the state’s cyber policies—and the myriad of state organs involved in Internet censorship and filtering—but also for carrying out the state’s planned transition to a national intranet that operates separate from the global cyber sphere.

The establishment of the SCC also reflects the Supreme Leader’s personal involvement in Internet regulation in Iran. Hamid Shahriari, the president of the Computer Research Centre for Islamic Sciences and a member of the Council, notes that for the past 23 years, the Ayatollah has been active and influential in the digital communications sector, exercising a special interest in managing and monitoring cyber space. According to Shahriari, the establishment of a Supreme Council reflects the Ayatollah’s determination to use his political and religious influence to bring all cyber-related institutions under his official control through direct and indirect intervention.

Structure and Powers

The SCC is a cross-factional body composed of top-ranking Iranian officials, which operates under the direct supervision and leadership of Khamenei. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad serves as the body’s chairperson and Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi, a doctorate in electrical engineering and former Educational and Research deputy at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, serves as the SCC’s Secretary General. Other members include the Majlis Speaker, the head of the judiciary, the director of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (MICT), the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), and the national police chief. Khamenei directly appoints seven additional members—which include technology experts, engineers, and directors of state media outlets—to serve as his direct representatives on the SCC.

The first formal act by the Council was to select Khamenei loyalist, Akhavan Behabadi, as the SCC’s General Secretary, a procedure requiring the Supreme Leader’s approval. The Council later established the National Center of Cyberspace (NCC), a body responsible for implementing the SCC’s decisions and policies. Akhavan Behabadi also acts as the head of the Center, which in effect has reduced Ahmadinejad’s legal power as Chairman of the Council. As such, decisions are made by Council members under Akhavan Behabadi’s supervision, which then require the Supreme Leader’s final approval for ratification.

Just following its formation, Khamenei issued a statement clarifying the body’s role and powers: “The formation of the SCC, along with the members of the committee must be emphasized at all levels of governance, to achieve the necessary goals for Iranian Cyberspace. All state agencies are required to cooperate with the centre.”

Authorities followed with numerous statements declaring the SCC as the central policy- and decision-making body in the field of cyberspace. Akhavan Behabadi has stated several times that the Council is the country’s only decisionmaking authority regarding Iran’s cyberspace policies, and that other organizations—including such as the Ministry of ICT, the Passive Defense Organization, and the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC)—are obliged to follow the Council’s decisions.

Akhavan Behabadi has added that the Council also will provide policies for Internet filtering for implementation by the filtering committee, the Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC). The CCDOC was established by 2009 Cyber Crimes Law and is headed by the Prosecutor General and is composed of numerous members who also serve as members of the SCC. The body, which operates under the broad authority of the judiciary (which is controlled by the Supreme Leader), decides what content should be filtered and blocked, and the  Data Communications Company of Iran and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) implements the decisions of the Committee. According to Akhavan Behabadi, the SCC will provide the CCDOC with policies and guidelines for its filtering activities.

Activities:  From planning to implementation

Following its establishment in March 2012, the SCC brought together a group of political consultants and technical experts to participate in the research and planning phase of the SCC’s regulations. The Council at the time came under heavy criticism for its perceived inactivity, due to a state-imposed media blackout on the SCC’s work. Pro-government news websites such as Hamshahri and the Teribon-e Mostazafin directed harsh criticism against the SCC. Weblog News was quick to voice its concerns over the SCC’s lack of action, arguing that “it’s been three months since the creation of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace and we have not still heard any ‘big news’ about this council.”

In response to these criticisms, Akhavan Behabadi held a press conference in which he cited the necessity of confidentiality and specific guidelines set by the Ayatollah as factors that led to the media blackout. Subsequently, Akhavan Behabadi indicated that the SCC reserves the right to withhold operational details in order to prevent the misuse of information by Iran’s “enemies.”

Yet the guidelines the Supreme Leader’s guidelines for the SCC activities remain unclear and the authorities’ emphasis on the SCC’s right to confidentiality has prompted continued skepticism and speculation. Akhavan Behadbadi’s statements on the classified nature of Khamenei’s guidelines have fuelled numerous conspiracy theories—one in particular speculates that the SCC is staging itself as a separate “intelligence unit” in order to increase its power and influence.

After this initial period during which only a few official statements were released, more recent announcements indicate that the SCC has moved toward implementing its policies. According to Akhavan Behabadi, the first item on the SCC’s agenda is the establishment of the National Information Network (NIN), the planned domestic intranet.

In addition, Akhavan Behabadi announced that the preliminary activities of the SCC are divided into three groups: cyber-defense management, technical management, and the development of new filtering policies.

Cyber Defense Management

The SCC is set to assume the responsibilities of managing organizational change and establishing collaborative institutions, the primary focus of which will be the management of cyber defense. In practice, the SCC has the authority to supervise all activities undertaken by military and non-military sectors involved with cyber defense. For example, a recent proclamation issued by the Secretary General of the SCC revealed that the Passive Defense Organization­—a military unit established by Khamenei in 2002, responsible for obstructing cyber attacks—would transfer all of its decision-making powers to the Supreme Council. Similarly, all other organizations active in the field of cyber defense and cyber security are obliged to collaborate with the Supreme Council and seek its approval prior to taking any action.

The powers of the SCC in cyber defense management are almost limitless; in Secretary General Akhavan Behabadi’s own words, “all other corresponding sectors such as Islamic Republic of Iran Police (known by its Farsi acronym NAJA), Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Sepah), Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, which used to be independently active in the field of cyber-defense, are now run under the supervision of this council.”

Technical Management of the Cyberspace and the National Information Network (NIN)

One of the key goals of the Supreme Council’s establishment is the unified and centralized management of the technical and infrastructural components of every sector that deals with cyberspace —a task previously coordinated by the management team of each particular sector. Secretary General Akhavan Behabadi has noted that in the future the SCC will become the primary facilitator for cyberspace management and will be responsible for monitoring any and every sort of online activity, including online content production, as well as any technical, infrastructural, and security issues related to the Internet. Additionally, mobile network services, such as text messaging, and entertainment services, such as online gaming, will also fall under the supervision of the Council.

The development of new policies on filtering

Over the past several years in particular, the issue of Web filtering has been one of the most pressing concerns of Iranian government officials. From both technological and political standpoints, Internet filtering continues to be one of the key mechanisms by which the Iranian leadership controls its citizens’ online activity. With the establishment of the SCC, a single intervening body will now coordinate Web filtering processes through the development and issuance of new policies on key issues related to the accessibility of web content.

The SCC is currently involved in the process of examining existing policies on filtering and will reportedly announce new ones in the near future. As noted, this will affect the activities of the filtering committee (CCDOC), which currently operates under the Prosecutor General’s office and more broadly, under the supervision of the head of the judiciary, a key member of the SCC. In addition, the SCC will coordinate the activities of various Internet surveillance and monitoring units, such as IRGC’s Cyber Army, Basij departments responsible for cyberspace activities, the Cyber Police, and the Passive Defense Organization.

Future of SCC

In response to criticisms of the SCC during the first few months after its establishment, Khamenei stated “the Council cannot be expected to fix cyber-related issues in the country, or to finish the national information network project in five or six months.” At the same time Khamenei also added that the Council would take advantage “of all means to accomplish its goals.” The determination of Khamenei’s words have surfaced themselves in the fact that today the SCC maintains a positions as the key body in charge of macro level cyber space policy making.

Establishment of SCC reflects the fact that the Supreme Leader and those close to him consider cyberspace policy a national security matter, like foreign policy and intelligence. As such, they think it is a matter that should be controlled by the office of the Supreme Leader and not the President. Historically, the Supreme Leader has appointed the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Intelligence and has had the final say in the affairs of these two ministries. By establishing SCC, the Supreme Leader has taken control over cyberspace policy making and reduced responsibilities of the Ministry of ICT and its affiliated centers, such as Iran’s Telecommunication Research Centre (ITRC) in implementing organizations with less decision making power.

While it’s still unclear how successful this body will be in the years to come in abetting his policy, such announcements demonstrate the Supreme Leader’s commitment to centralizing Iran’s Internet governance and infrastructure under his authority.