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Tehran is receiving advanced surveillance software after providing drones for Ukraine battlefield
Russia is helping Iran gain advanced digital-surveillance capabilities as Tehran seeks deeper cooperation on cyberwarfare, people familiar with the matter said, adding another layer to a burgeoning military alliance that the U.S. sees as a threat.
The potential for cyberwarfare collaboration comes after Iran has, according to U.S. and Iranian officials, sold Russia drones for use in Ukraine, agreed to provide short-range missiles to Moscow and shipped tank and artillery rounds to the battlefield. Tehran is seeking the cyber help along with what U.S. and Iranian officials have said are requests for dozens of elite Russian attack helicopters and jet fighters and aid with its long-range missile program.
Russia and Iran both have sophisticated cyber capabilities and have long collaborated with each other, signing a cyber-cooperation agreement two years ago that analysts said focused mostly on cyber-defense networks. Moscow has long resisted sharing digital-offensive capabilities with Iran in the past, for fear they will end up being sold later on the dark web, the people said.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has provided Iran with communication-surveillance capabilities as well as eavesdropping devices, advanced photography devices and lie detectors, people familiar with the matter said.
Moscow has likely already shared with Iran more advanced software that would allow it to hack the phones and systems of dissidents and adversaries, the people said. Russian authorities have determined that the benefits of advancing the military relationship with Iran outweigh any downsides, the people said.
The Iranian government used the internet to blunt the impact of a nationwide protest movement last year, slowing down web traffic in target areas to stop the spread of videos and communications among protesters. It also used digital surveillance tools to track and arrest protesters.
Russia’s PROTEI Ltd has begun providing internet-censorship software to Iranian mobile-services provider Ariantel, according to documents published by the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research center. Citizen Lab said there is evidence that the PROTEI tools are part of a developing mobile-phone system that would “enable state authorities to directly monitor, intercept, redirect, degrade or deny all Iranians’ mobile communications, including those who are presently challenging the regime.”
In Russia, PROTEI develops hardware and software designed to help governments monitor communications on phone lines, emails and credit-card transactions, among other things, according to cybersecurity analysts. The company has contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The Russian government, Ariantel, PROTEI and the Iranian delegation at the United Nations in New York didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Iran has long worked to develop its cyber weapons into a more sophisticated program after years of being seen as a second-tier digital-warfare power behind the U.S., Russia, China and the U.K.
Iranian government hackers and groups aligned with the regime have conducted disinformation campaigns, carried out supply-chain attacks and hit infrastructure in rival nations such as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Israel has accused Iran of trying to hack its water system and, last month, said a group affiliated with Iranian intelligence conducted a cyberattack on a top Israeli university.
The country’s cyberwarfare program has its origins in the government’s response to 2009 protests over elections that the opposition said were rigged for then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Annie Fixler, a cyber policy analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that is often critical of Iran. The government’s focus then was on surveillance, censorship and crushing dissent; Russia would offer more sophisticated ways of monitoring communications inside the country, she said.
“Given Russia’s superior capabilities, any amount of knowledge transfer would improve Iran’s cyber capabilities,” Ms. Fixler said.
When Russia began deploying Iranian-made drones on the Ukraine battlefield, the two countries deepened an alignment that began with the Syrian civil war, where they helped President Bashar al-Assad beat back a rebellion. They have set aside differences that date back centuries to align against their mutual enemies, said Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an associate professor specializing in Middle East politics at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
“Feeling cornered by the U.S. and its allies, both Iran and Russia seem determined to make this alliance work,” Prof. Tabaar said.
WSJ News Exclusive | Russia Supplies Iran With Cyber Weapons as Military Cooperation Grows
Tehran is receiving advanced surveillance software after providing drones for Ukraine battlefield, people familiar with the matter said, adding another layer to a burgeoning alliance that the U.S. sees as a threat.