One of Iran’s most feared and secretive state agencies has softened its tone and pulled back the curtain on some of its activities in what appears to be an attempt to improve its public image.
The country’s Intelligence Ministry has launched a new website
with a variety of content apparently aimed at informing, reassuring, and protecting ordinary Iranians.
Its debut offerings includes an interview with Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi -- who notes that all "antirevolutionary" moves are being closely monitored -- as well as analyses of U.S. and Israeli intelligence services and information about "human rights abuses by the U.S. government," and "Egypt’s new ties with the Zionist regime."
Somewhat ironically for an agency that has admitted hacking into the email accounts of opposition members, it also offers tips on how to protect online data.
The Intelligence Ministry says the aim of its new website is to forge better ties with both the media and ordinary Iranians.
The move also appears to be part of a larger effort by the Islamic republic to expand its online presence and confront what it has described as a "soft war" by its enemies.
Nima Mina is a lecturer at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. According to him, the ministry’s unprecedented decision to join the information highway seems to be in line with its new outreach policy, which in recent weeks has seen it taking a more public role and highlighting its activities.
"The Intelligence Ministry had a public information booth at a recent book fair in Tehran and representatives of the ministry were there to meet with visitors and answer questions," he says. "Later on, about two to three weeks ago, they launched an exhibition of their successes in the field of counterespionage and they put on display artifacts that they claim they confiscated from Western and Israeli intelligence organizations."
Mina believes that the ministry is following the example of some Western intelligence organizations in this regard, but he also says the website could be an attempt by the ministry to recruit new members. He notes that "they’re looking to renew and rejuvenate their personnel."
Under the "About Us" section, the ministry's employment requirements are listed. The section also includes assorted facts about the ministry, including its founding date and the name of the Islamic republic’s first intelligence minister, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reyshahri. It also lists the main duties of the ministry, such as "counterespionage."
One section of the website lists the ministry's latest security publications, while another section, titled "warnings," gives Iranians security tips for using cell phones, traveling, and dealing with strangers.
"Don’t ever use a computer that contains private and secret information to connect to the Internet,” the ministry warns. It also advises against long distance calls over the Internet.
Many Iranians use the Internet to connect with families and friends abroad because of the low cost involved, but also because of widespread concern that the Intelligence Ministry monitors phone calls inside the country.
New York-based Iranian journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, who was jailed in Iran and interrogated by Intelligence Ministry officials, suggests the ministry is trying to soften its fearsome image. ("Rogue agents" from the ministry were accused of murdering four dissidents in 1998.)
“In particular, some of the sections of the website are trying to demonstrate that the Intelligence Ministry is concerned about the security of citizens, and is trying to make them feel psychologically secure," Mirebrahimi says. "I see it as window dressing because of my experience. The ministry doesn't access people’s information to protect them; on the contrary, I believe it exposes citizens to more risks.”
Ebrahimi says that, when he was arrested in Iran, intelligence officials seized on his main tool as a journalist, his telephone book, and used it to make accusations and bring charges.
One opposition member in Tehran said in an email that he was even afraid to check the new website because “they’ve been behind the arrest of many of our friends. They monitor our online and [offline] activities.”
The Intelligence Ministry says on its website that all you need to do to contact the ministry is to send your telephone number to its P.O. Box.
They will get back to you.