For weeks people in Iran have been protesting against the regime, which is also responding with Internet blocking. US government says SpaceX’s Starlink could help.
The US government is examining whether and how the United States can help quickly install antennas for Starlink satellite internet in Iran. CNN reports, quoting an anonymous official as saying, “We have our foot on the gas to do everything in our power to support the aspirations of the Iranian people.” The White House sees Starlink as an easy-to-use technology that can bypass the Islamic Republic’s aggressive Internet restrictions. It would be the second US use of Starlink this year, after Ukraine, to provide basic communications elsewhere. In Iran, people have been protesting against the regime at great risk for weeks.
Starlink is an option – but not the only one
“We want to find ways to ensure that Iranians can access the Internet on their phones and everywhere else,” CNN quoted a US government official as saying: “Starlink is one option, but not the only one.” According to the report, it is not known whether the government wants to pay to set up Starlink antennas in Iran. At the same time, there are still concerns about Elon Musk’s unpredictability. A few days ago, he started a discussion about the use of Starlink in Ukraine and the costs involved, once again raising doubts about its reliability. With regard to Iran, however, there are other imponderables.
In Iran, people have been demonstrating against the oppression of women and against the Islamic Republic as a whole for weeks. The trigger was the death of 22-year-old Mahsa (or Jina) Amini in police custody after she was arrested by the so-called vice squad for violating dress codes. The regime continues to take massive and brutal action against the protests, and hundreds of people are believed to have been killed. Among other things, those responsible in Tehran keep restricting the Internet, and many communication services such as WhatsApp and Instagram are blocked. Alternative access to the Internet via Starlink could help here, but there are also many risks. Meanwhile, Elon Musk had already claimed at the end of September that Starlink had been activated in Iran.
There are already reports that more and more Starlink antennas are being smuggled into Iran. So far, however, it has been unclear whether they can establish a connection there because it is not only necessary for Starlink satellites to be in sight, but they must also be able to contact a ground station at the same time. According to unofficial maps, there are none that are close enough. Nevertheless, there are more and more reports that stable connections are possible.
First antennas already active
Karim Sadjadpour from the think tank CEIP (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) also speaks on Twitter of evidence that the antennas in Iran are now working. He points out that satellite dishes are also banned in the country but are installed everywhere. According to CNN, some in the US government hope that Starlink’s antennas will one day be as widespread in Iran as satellite television receivers. Musk tweeted a few days ago that only a few antennas are still active in Iran.
Although the technical requirements for using Starlink in Iran are apparently in place, there are still warnings. CNN quotes expert Amir Rashidi as pointing out that the country lacks knowledge of how to hide antenna signals. Unlike in Ukraine, where the technology was distributed and installed with the approval and support of the authorities, in Iran, this would have to be done against the will of the government. However, the antennas need a line of sight to the sky and can be found using their signals. Initiatives backed by the US government are also risky because the regime could accuse people found with a Starlink antenna of spying or working for the enemy.
John Scott-Railton, who previously warned of the dangers of finding the antennas in Ukraine, now admits to CNN that the success there is a huge marketing success for Musk’s company. The question of how communications in Iran can be protected is a completely different one. It remains difficult to imagine how the goals there could be achieved with Starlink: “Efforts should be based on understanding how people in Iran communicate, what risks they are exposed to and what technologies to circumvent censorship they have experience with. We should get involved, but beware of easy panaceas.”