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Musk's Starlinks Poised to Boost Iran Protests
State Department has opened door for export of Musk's Internet satellite kits. Getting them inside Iran could require CIA covert action program.
Does the future of the anti-government protests in Iran depend on Elon Musk?
Musk’s activation last month of his Starlink satellite Internet service over Iran has raised hopes among those protesting the Islamic republic’s oppressive regime that they can circumvent Tehran’s tight restrictions on online communications. A connection to Starlink’s Internet service would allow the protesters to coordinate further demonstrations and relay images of their struggle to the outside world.
But so far, technical and legal hurdles may have prevented the few Iranian activists who have smuggled Starlink receiver kits into the country from establishing links to the company’s constellation of satellites orbiting above Iran. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal described how two Iranian men, one of them a network engineer, obtained a Starlink satellite dish and receiver that had been smuggled across the Persian Gulf from Dubai and set it up on the roof of a home in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahwaz. But, despite hours of effort, they were unable to establish a satellite link.
“We were disappointed and sad,” Saeed Souzangar, the network engineer, told the paper. “We are trying to keep the candles of hope lit in the darkest times of life.”
Musk’s SpaceX company, which provides the Starlink satellite service, did not respond to a request for comment. It remains unclear why the Iranians could not establish a connection with the Starlink system.
Holly Dagres, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, points to possible technical glitches. She says it’s not clear whether Iranians’ access to the Starlink satellite system requires a connections between a user’s receiver and a ground station, the closest of which lies hundreds of miles away in Turkey, or whether the Starlink satellites use laser technology that would not require a ground station to access. Musk and Starlink have not publicly addressed this issue.
“To solve this million-dollar question, the Biden administration should have a proper sit-down with the company to better understand this technology,” Dagres said in an email. “Then relay the information onto an official U.S. government website in English and Persian.”
Meanwhile, senior administration officials add Musk also faces legal complications arising from U.S. sanctions that prevent technology sales to Iran.
Musk activated his Starlink satellite service for Iranians last month after the Biden administration issued a Treasury Department “General License” permitting American tech companies to provide Iran with Internet service.
The license, which effectively serves as an exemption to some U.S. sanctions, came in response to Iran’s crackdown on the anti-government demonstrations. The protests erupted across Iran several weeks ago following the death in the custody of Iran’s morality police of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman arrested in Tehran for allegedly violating the country’s conservative Muslim dress code.
Police said she died of a heart attack, but the morality police are infamous for beating women accused of improper dress—an offense that can include a wisp of hair left uncovered by a woman’s hijab head covering mandated by the government.
In an odd legal wrinkle, however, the Treasury license does not permit American tech companies to sell their equipment to customers in Iran. A senior administration official said this prohibition applies to Starlink’s receiver kits, which include a small satellite dish and router that the company sells for $500.
The official indicated Starlink would need further clearances from the administration before its receiver kits could begin operating in Iran without violating the sanctions.
“Our understanding of Starlink is that what they provide would be commercial grade, and it would be hardware that’s not covered in the general license,” the official said. “So that would be something they would need to write to Treasury for.”
In any event, license requirements are irrelevant when the hardware is smuggled into Iran. And there’s no shortage of foreign-based anti-regime groups capable of buying scores of the devices for Iranian dissidents.
A senior Iranian Kurdish opposition official said his party stands ready to smuggle Starlink satellite dishes and routers across Iran’s mountainous northwestern border from the neighboring autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Iraq.
“We are ready to smuggle this equipment into Iran,” Salah Bayaziddi, the U.S. representative of the opposition Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, told SpyTalk, referring to the Starlink receiver kits. The party, which is outlawed in Iran, is headquartered in Iraq’s Kurdish region and has many followers on both sides of the border who would be willing to undertake the smuggling mission, Bayaziddi said.
Given Iran’s porous borders and the country’s numerous minorities that oppose the clerical regime’s oppressive policies, Bayaziddi said the receiver kits also could be smuggled into Iran from neighboring Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and across the Persian Gulf.
Starlink did not respond to SpyTalk’s queries asking if the legal hurdle was preventing Iranians with Starlink receivers from linking up with the satellite service, or whether Musk would pay for the satellite terminals himself.
Meanwhile, the anti-government protests continued across Iran Monday, presenting its clerical leaders with the strongest sustained challenge to their rule since 2009, when thousands demonstrated against what they charged were rigged elections. In the current wave of protests, police using live ammunition have killed and wounded scores of demonstrators, and thousands have been arrested.
The Iranian crackdown also includes tight restrictions on the Internet to prevent communication among protest leaders and block cell phone videos of the unrest reaching the outside world. Protest organizers have relied heavily on social media to organize and challenge the regime’s theocratic rules.
Reports from Iran say authorities have severely restricted access to the country’s largest providers MCI and Irancell, preventing most Iranians from accessing the Internet at home and from calling, emailing and texting on their cell phones.
Iranian authorities also have moved to block access to virtual private networks (VPNs), which most Iranians used to circumvent restrictions. In addition, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, remain blocked throughout the country, meaning all major social media platforms and messaging applications have now been censored in Iran.
Protesters in Tehran and Ahwas have reportedly resorted to passing out leaflets with anti-government statements and details of planned demonstrations. Others continue to rely upon unblocked VPNs or tune in to Farsi-speaking satellite broadcasts, such as London-based Iran International, which runs videos of the protests and provides details of planned demonstrations.
Two weeks ago Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken justified loosening export controls by saying “the Iranian government has cut off access to the Internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them—and the world—from watching its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors. . . . In the face of these steps, we are going to help make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark. This is a concrete step to provide meaningful support to Iranians demanding that their basic rights be respected.”
In response to Blinken later that day, Musk tweeted: “Activating Starlink”.
On September 25, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, tweeted that he had spoken with Musk and quoted him as saying: “Starlink is now activated in Iran. It requires the use of terminals in-country, which I suspect the [Iranian] government will not support, but if anyone can get terminals into Iran, they will work.”
Sadjadpour added that Biden administration officials are “open to helping get Starlink terminals to Iran.” He cited financial and logistical challenges, noting: “It will cost many millions of dollars to set up and sustain thousands of Starlink terminals to Iran.” But Sadjadpour added: “This challenge is surmountable.”
Since posting this tweet, Sadjadpour has refused to provide any further details about how the administration could assist in getting Starlink terminals into Iran. Administration officials also declined to comment on Sadjadpour remarks.
Secret U.S. government funding to buy Starlink kits for the protesters and get them into Iran would likely be managed by the CIA and almost certainly be defined as a “covert action” requiring a presidential “finding,” or approval.
Bayaziddi, the Iranian Kurdish official, said he and his people stand ready.
“When you think about the opposition in Iran to this government, the one that has the largest footprint geographically-speaking and by population and is the most organized are the Kurds of Iran,” Bayaziddi said in an interview. “The only questions are how many of these kits will Komala be able to smuggle in, and will the United States be active in this endeavor.”
Struggling under sanctions for years now, Iranians are long accustomed to buying smuggled Western goods on the black market.
“Iranians smuggle everything from alcohol to satellite dishes,” the Atlantic Council’s Dagres said. “So the notion of smuggling Starlink Internet satellite kits wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.”
SpyTalk Contributing Editor Jonathan Broder has been reporting from and writing about the Middle East for decades.