Exclusive to CNN: After Ukraine, the Biden administration resorted to the use of satellite Internet for Musk to Iran


The White House has held talks with Elon Musk about the possibility of setting up SpaceX’s satellite Internet service Starlink inside Iran, several officials familiar with the discussions told CNN.

The conversations, which have not been previously reported, come as the Biden administration looks for ways to support Iranian protest movement Which exploded just over a month ago after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in suspicious circumstances after being detained by the country’s morality police.

The White House sees Starlink’s compact and easy-to-use technology as a potential solution for the Iranian regime unremitting efforts To restrict activists’ access to the Internet and their communications.

“We have put our feet on the gas to do everything we can to support the aspirations of the Iranian people,” a senior administration official told CNN. “This is our policy, this period. At the same time, it is really an Iranian movement led by young girls and spreading to other aspects of society. And we do not want in any way to be superior to their movement.”

If a plan is carried out, it will be the second main stage this year – Together with Ukraine The US government has turned to Starlink to help provide critical communications services, even as questions revolve around Musk’s reliability in his dealings with the US government.

“It’s a loose cannon that we can never predict,” said a senior US defense official familiar with the government’s discussions with Musk and SpaceX over Ukraine.

Concerns about Musk’s unexpected tendencies grew after that CNN first reported Last week, Musk’s subsidiary SpaceX asked the Pentagon to pay tens of millions of dollars a month to fund Starlink in Ukraine and ease the burden on SpaceX. In response to those reports, Musk then Suddenly announced on Twitter He withdrew the funding request.

The Pentagon said this week that talks with SpaceX about Ukraine are continuing, after documents obtained by CNN showed that SpaceX warned the Pentagon last month that it could no longer fund or service Starlink in Ukraine for an “unspecified period of time.”

SpaceX claims that providing Starlink services in Ukraine has cost it $80 million so far, and by the end of the year costs will exceed $100 million. SpaceX did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

The needs of Iranian protesters and Ukrainian soldiers, and how they will use Starlink, is very different. Experts warn that while Starlink in Ukraine has been critical to battlefield successes, getting Starlink into Iran will be a much larger and potentially more serious challenge.

A photo obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022, shows Iranian protesters on the streets of Tehran during a protest by Lamhasa Amini, days after her death in police custody.

The situation with Starlink and Ukraine does not appear to have prevented the White House from pursuing Starlink, which uses satellites to send Internet service to terminals embedded on the ground. SpaceX has about 3,000 satellites currently in orbit and about 20,000 stations on the ground in Ukraine.

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President Joe Biden wanted to be more optimistic and publicly supportive of the Iranian protesters than his former boss, President Barack Obama, who chose to stay largely away from the Iranian protest movement that erupted in 2009. Biden He said in a statement On October 3, he said his administration “stands with Iranian women and all citizens of Iran who inspire the world with their courage” and is trying to facilitate Iranians’ access to the Internet.

“We are interested in finding ways to ensure Iranians have access to the Internet on their phones and elsewhere,” the senior administration official said. “So Starlink is one option, but it’s not the only one.”

It is not clear if the administration has offered to pay for Starlink stations that will be built in Iran. In its September letter to the Pentagon, SpaceX said it could no longer donate Starlink stations to Ukraine or pay for its ongoing services and requested that the Pentagon take over funding for the Ukrainian government and military use of Starlink, which SpaceX’s claims would cost more than $120 million for the rest of the year and could potentially It cost nearly $400 million for the next 12 months.

Some US officials hope that one day Starlink stations on the ground will become as popular in Iran as satellite dishes. The sources indicated that this technology is technically prohibited by the regime, but it is nevertheless available in abundance across the country. Currently, there are “very few” Starlink stations actually operating in Iran, Musk He said in a tweet last week.

But there are several glaring issues with that plan. Chief among them is that Starlink satellites require physical terminals on Earth to communicate with them, and their signals can be easy to detect. Smuggling units across the border into Iran is just the first challenge, before they are virtually used by undisciplined protesters under the harsh gaze of Iran’s security services.

“It would be really dangerous for people in Iran to use them on a large scale,” said Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at Mian Group, who was forced to flee Iran after the 2009 protests.

Al-Rashidi said more informative materials in Farsi are needed to help protesters understand how to better cover their tracks and use equipment safely. He says more investment is needed in circumvention tools and the work of the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union.

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He said the US-backed effort carries significant risks.

“Once we get caught, the first charge is that you’re a spy, you work for the CIA, you work for a British intelligence service,” he said. “If the United States government was involved in the distribution, that would be another crime in the eyes of the Iranian government and people could be accused of committing it, and it’s really difficult and difficult charges.”

While support for protester communications is an area where the administration feels it can take concrete action, the administration’s criticism is that it is only being taken seriously now.

“Why didn’t we find out sooner?” One of the people involved in the discussions told CNN. “We put a lot of effort into the JCPOA [nuclear deal]. It is in the continuing national security interest to get rid of this system. Here’s how: Empower those democrats on the ground in Iran and the first way to do that is to find ways to support technology like that in the country, and we didn’t, we failed.”

For now, the JCPOA “is not on the agenda,” the senior administration official told CNN. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, echoed that Thursday, telling reporters that we are “a long way from the Iranians in terms of getting back into the deal.”

“What we are focusing on is making sure that we hold the regime accountable for the way they treat protesters in the country,” he said.

The White House, government technology experts, and Musk and his team are still working, though, to address the biggest challenges with Starlink and other communications technologies, officials said.

“When it comes to more active involvement of the USG, without going into specific technologies, we always think about whether the technology will put those who use it at risk of being identified and harmed by their government in some way,” said a senior administration official. . “All the elements of the Biden administration are interconnected in that.”

The official also spoke of the benefits of a policy change that the Biden administration made last month in an effort to expand Internet services to Iranians. The license issued by the Treasury will give US technology companies greater freedom to operate in Iran, which is subject to severe sanctions.

“The beauty of the D-2 General License is that it allows private companies to decide for themselves what products and services to offer inside Iran,” the official said.

Musk said that if the terminals can reach Iran, SpaceX has already activated the signal. But the way he behaved in discussions about Ukraine only added to concerns about the huge impact that the world’s richest man may now have on some of the world’s biggest conflicts.

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SpaceX Starlink Internet station installed in Odessa, southern Ukraine, March 15, 2022.

Last weekend, musk chirpOn Saturday, he wrote: “To hell… Although Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions of dollars from taxpayers, we will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free.” Then on Monday he stated unequivocally: “SpaceX has already withdrawn its request for funding.”

Earlier this week, the Pentagon press secretary, Brig. General Pat Ryder told reporters that the department “continues to discuss various matters with SpaceX, to include Starlink,” adding that the Pentagon has yet to pay anything for Starlink.

At the same time, there were numerous reports of Starlink interruptions along the front line with the incursion of Ukraine into the areas occupied by Russia. A person familiar with discussions with SpaceX told CNN that Ukraine had to make a pre-emptive request to operate the service when an area was restored.

On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov expressed confidence that Starlink’s funding would continue, telling Politico, “I know we won’t have a problem.” If funding does not come from SpaceX, he said, he expects the Pentagon, Europe and private donors to increase.

Musk has pointed to Ukrainian officials’ public praise of SpaceX and Starlink — one of Ukraine’s top officials, Mikhailo Fedorov, who called Musk “among the world’s top private donors who support Ukraine” — as evidence that he’s not trying to undermine the Ukrainians’ fight.

When someone tweeted on Tuesday that Musk was “trying to bring both sides of the conflict back to the same level as possible, in order to avoid a one-sided situation,” calling it “peace at minimal cost,” Musk replied, “Exactly.”

However, concerns remain about the extent of Ukraine’s dependence on Starlink.

“Ukraine needs Musk’s technology, but they don’t know if he will continue to support them,” said a person familiar with discussions between Ukraine and SpaceX.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher and expert on conflict communication, described Starlink’s success in Ukraine as “fantastic marketing”, but the question of how communications ultimately support Iranian protesters “is a huge challenge, and it’s hard to tell how it can be addressed by hardware devices.” Starlink.”

Aid efforts should focus on understanding how Iranians communicate, the risks they face, and the circumvention and censorship techniques they have experience using. We should participate, but be wary of ideas of the silver solution.”

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