While Iranian efforts to increase its power outside Iran, as in Syria and Yemen continue to show signs of some success, there are still obvious failures that, in the past year, tend to occur inside Iran. The latest such embarrassments took place during the first two months of 2020. These included a major attack on the Internet and cellphone access that shut down service in several major networks for one to seven hours until the government’s much touted Digital Fortress (or “Dajfa”) finally did what the government had boasted it could do. Dajfa deflected the massive DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack on Iran. Getting Internet service working again was a mixed blessing because, despite continued efforts to censor what Iranians say on the Internet, bad news continued to get around quickly, often with lots of embarrassing details.
The day before the DDOS attack, Iran suffered another failed effort to put a satellite into orbit. This was made worse by the fact that this failure was the fourth in a row with the expensive new three-stage rocket Iran had publicized as a major achievement. Iranians also knew it was an expensive project that hurt them directly. That’s because news had already got past the censors about how foreign economists, measuring Iranian financial activity and other visible items to measure GDP growth, had discovered that sanctions and lower oil prices had resulted in Iranian GDP shrinking eight percent in 2019. To most Iranians, this GDP decline made sense because the standard of living for most Iranians had visibly declined in 2019. This explained another bit of bad news about how the Chinese covid19 coronavirus had reached Iran with a major outbreak in Qom, a city full of Islamic shrines and institutes staffed by the most senior and learned Shia religious scholars. Most Iranians cannot afford to travel, but the Shia clergy in Qom can because they are supporters of the increasingly unpopular religious dictatorship. In the last year, Iranians have been openly protesting this decades-old misrule and calling for the clergy to step down. The covid19 outbreak was apparently in Qom because some of those traveling clergy had brought it back to where many of their fellow senior, and elderly, clergy live. The official word is that there have been a few dozen covid19 deaths in Qom but unofficial reports put it at over 200. At the end of February Iran said they had experienced 54 deaths and 978 known cases. That’s a five percent fatality rate, twice what China reports and more than five times what other foreign nations report. Unofficial reports indicate many more deaths but not a lot more people infected. Dead bodies are much harder to conceal than people who do or might, have covid19. Either way this makes Iran the largest source of covid19 deaths outside of China. Covid19 is, like the more common influenza (also from China) that is more lethal to the very old and very young. While most Iranians do not have access to effective health care, the elite clergy in Qom certainly do and it did not save their lives.
Another bit of good/bad news was that the government efforts to hack into VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) that some Iranians, who can afford it, use to get news into Iran, were a mixed success. Not only had most foreign VPN providers found ways to repair the VPNs flaws that Iranian hackers were exploiting, but that the government hackers had been hacked, apparently by Russian hackers. Those clever Russians, who were supposed to be Iranian allies, had disguised themselves as Iranian hackers to carry out lucrative hacks overseas. The most aggressive and effective Iranian hacking group, the government-supported APT 34 was also seeking ways into Western networks that control utilities like electrical, gas and water supply as well as communications systems. There were no visible signs of these hacks but the Western Internet security agencies had detected it, along with the Russians passing themselves off as a notorious Iranian APT (Advanced Persistent Threat). There are a lot of APT groups worldwide and they are assigned a number, thus APT34 for the Iranian group. Most of the others are Chinese or Russian and among APTs, it is the survival of the fittest and APT was found to be vulnerable and then taken advantage of.
That was not the only insult from Russia. Syria and Iran have one thing in common, both use Russian supplied S-300 air defense systems. The Syrians complain that the S-300 radar could not find or track Israeli F-35 stealth fighters. The Syrian S-300 operators doubt the S-300 is effective against any Israeli weapons, including the less stealthy cruise missiles and F-16 fighters. The Syrians claim the Israelis have EW (electronic warfare) equipment that can jam or deceive the S-300 radars and guidance systems in S-300 missiles. Russia is believed to still have a veto over when the Syrian S-300s can be used and apparently has not yet allowed the Syrian S-300s to fire on Israeli intruders. In China, a recent article in a state-controlled newspaper came right out and said the S-300 does not work and that the Chinese should know because they bought the system from Russia and fixed the problems by developing their own, improved version of the S-300 called the FD-2000. This system is available for export, to just about anyone who can pay, including Iran or Syria. But Russia insisted S-300 was just as good and offered a better price. Neither the S-300 nor FD-2000 have yet to prove themselves in combat.
China has had some more bad news just for Iran. The covid19 outbreak has paralyzed much of the Chinese economy and that led to a sharp reduction in Chinese oil imports. China is the largest importer of oil in the world and the largest customer for Iranian oil. It is illegal for China to import Iranian oil so Iran has to pay intermediaries to purchase the oil at a discount and then rebrand it as from somewhere else and deliver it to China. Several larger tankers of that Iranian oil are stalled off the China coast until China needs it. Other Iranian oil exports to China are halted until those tankers are unloaded.
Meanwhile Russia makes matters worse by refusing to cooperate with the other major producers and reducing its oil exports to reduce supply and raise prices. The last year was bad enough for Iranians but 2020 shows signs of being even worse. In early March ally Russia and arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia cooperated to flood world markets with oil and drive prices down to $30 a barrel or less. This is a long term investment by the Saudis and Russians. It is a radical and dangerous effort to use oil price manipulation to put North American frackers out of business for good. Not very likely but desperation breeds attempt.
Because of the continued and growing anti-government attitudes in Iran, these new disasters are seen as falling mainly on the hated clerical dictatorship and may be interpreted as divine retribution against a bunch of malevolent pretenders in Qom trying, and failing. to run the country for the benefit of all. The high covid19 death rate among the senior clergy is seen by most Iranians, even the very religious ones who still back the clerical dictatorship, as a sign that the senior clergy have lost divine approval. Not a good thing for clergy who invoke divine inspiration for their quite tragic track record.