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CNN Exclusive: After Ukraine, Biden Administration Turns to Musk’s Satellite Internet for Iran


Washington
CNN

The White House is in talks with Elon Musk about the possible installation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service in Iran, officials familiar with the talks told CNN.

The previously unreported conversations show that the Biden administration has overseen the Iranian protests that erupted more than a month ago after the death of 22-year-old Masa Amini in questionable circumstances after being detained by the country’s morality. Occurs when looking for ways to help. police.

The White House sees Starlink’s compact, easy-to-use technology as a potential solution to the Iranian regime’s aggressive efforts to limit internet access and communications for activists.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to support the aspirations of the Iranian people,” a senior government official told CNN. “That is our policy, period. I don’t want to get in the way.”

If the plan is enacted, despite swirling questions about the credibility of Mr. Musk’s dealings with the U.S. government, why did the U.S. government turn to Starlink to help provide critical communications services? , becoming the second major theater this year after Ukraine.

“He’s a cannon that we can’t predict,” said a senior U.S. defense official familiar with Ukraine talks between the government and Musk and SpaceX.

Last week, CNN reported that Musk’s company, SpaceX, was quietly asking the Pentagon to pay tens of millions of dollars a month to fund Ukraine’s Starlink and ease the burden on SpaceX. Concerns about Musk’s unpredictable tendencies grew after CNN first reported. Following the report, Musk abruptly announced on Twitter that he had withdrawn his funding request.

The Pentagon said this week that talks with SpaceX on Ukraine are underway. SpaceX warned last month that it could not fund Starlink or provide services in Ukraine “indefinitely,” according to documents obtained by CNN.

SpaceX claims it has spent $80 million to date to provide Starlink services in Ukraine and will exceed $100 million by the end of the year. SpaceX did not respond to his CNN request for comment.

The needs of Iranian protesters and Ukrainian soldiers, and how Starlink is used, are very different. And while Ukrainian Starlink has been vital to its success on the battlefield, experts warn that bringing Starlink to Iran poses a much bigger and potentially more dangerous task.

A photo obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022 shows Iranian demonstrators protesting on the streets of Tehran days after Martha Amini died in police custody. .

The situation with Starlink and Ukraine doesn’t seem to deter the White House from pursuing Starlink.SpaceX currently has about 3,000 satellites in orbit and about 20,000 terminals on the ground in Ukraine.

President Joe Biden wanted to be more bullish and openly supportive of the Iranian protesters than his former boss, President Barack Obama, who chose to stay largely away from the Iranian protests that erupted in 2009. Biden said in a statement on Oct. 3 that his administration “supports the women of Iran and all citizens of Iran who are inspiring the world with their courage” and seeks to make it easier for Iranians to access the internet. .

“We are interested in finding ways to enable people in Iran to access the internet on their mobile phones and elsewhere,” said the official. “So Starlink is one option.” But it’s not the only option.”

It is not clear if the administration has offered to pay for the installation of Starlink terminals in Iran. He said he could no longer cover the costs of ongoing services and urged the Pentagon to take over funding for military use of the Ukrainian government and Starlink. It cost him $120 million for the rest of the year and could cost him nearly $400 million over the next 12 months.

Some US officials hope that Starlink’s ground terminals will one day become as prevalent in Iran as satellite TV antennas. That technology, too, has been technically banned by the regime, but it’s still plentiful across the country, sources note.Currently, there are “few” Starlink terminals already in operation in Iran, Musk said in a tweet last week.

But there are some glaring problems with that plan. Most importantly, Starlink’s satellites require physical terminals on the ground to connect, and their signals may be easily detected. Smuggling troops across the border into Iran is just the first challenge before being used by undisciplined protesters under the scrutiny of Iranian security forces.

Amir Rashidi, Director of Internet Security and Digital Rights at Miaan Group, said: 2009 protest. “It is really dangerous for the Iranian people to use it on a large scale.”

Rashidi said in Persian that more educational materials are needed to help protesters better cover their tracks and understand how to use their equipment safely. He argues that more investment is needed in diversion tools and work by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.

The US-backed effort carries significant risks, he said.

“As soon as we are arrested, the first charges are that you are a spy, you work for the CIA, you work for British intelligence,” he said. “If the U.S. government is involved in the distribution, it is another crime in the eyes of the Iranian government and people could be prosecuted for it and face very difficult and severe charges.”

Supporting protesters’ means of communication is an area the administration feels can take concrete action, but criticism of the administration is only being addressed seriously now.

“Why didn’t you realize this sooner?” one person who attended the discussion told CNN. “We put a lot of effort into the JCPOA. [nuclear deal]Eliminating this regime is a continuing national security interest. Here’s how: The best way to empower democrats on the ground in Iran is to find ways to support such technology domestically, but we have failed. ”

A senior government official told CNN that the JCPOA is currently “not on the agenda.” “We are far from Iran in terms of returning to the deal,” John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, told reporters on Thursday.

“Our focus is to hold the administration accountable for how it treats protesters at home,” he said.

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

“Without going into specific technology, when it comes to more active U.S. government engagement, we are always looking at whether people using the technology are somehow identified by the government and put them at risk of harm.” said a senior government official .

The official also touted the benefits of policy changes made by the Biden administration last month to extend internet services to Iranians. It will give you greater freedom to do business with.

“The great thing about the general license D-2 is that private companies can decide for themselves what products and services they offer inside Iran,” the official said.

Musk said SpaceX has already activated the signal if the terminal can enter Iran. But his actions in the debate over Ukraine only add to concerns that the world’s richest man could now wield considerable influence over some of the world’s biggest conflicts.

SpaceX Starlink internet terminal in Odessa, southern Ukraine, March 15, 2022.

Musk last weekend murmured: “Holy shit… Starlink is still in the red and we’re just going to keep funding the Ukrainian government for free, even as other companies get billions of taxpayers,” he said on Saturday. wrote. Then on Monday, he clearly stated:

Earlier this week, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters the Pentagon “continues to have discussions with SpaceX on various issues to include Starlink,” adding that the Pentagon has not yet paid Starlink anything. rice field.

At the same time, there have been numerous reports of Starlink outages along the front lines as Ukraine invades Russian-occupied territories. A person familiar with the talks with SpaceX told CNN that Ukraine had to aggressively demand that services begin when the area was retaken.

On Thursday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov expressed confidence that funding for Starlink would continue, telling Politico: If the funding isn’t from his SpaceX, he said he expects the Pentagon, Europe, and private donors to step up.

Musk points out that Ukrainian officials have publicly praised SpaceX and Starlink. A senior Ukrainian official, Mikhail Fedorov, called Mr. Musk “one of the world’s top private funders supporting Ukraine.”

When someone tweeted on Tuesday, Musk said he was “trying to bring both sides of the conflict as evenly as possible to avoid a one-sided situation,” calling it “peace at the least cost.” , Musk replied: ”

Still, concerns remain about how dependent Ukraine is on Starlink.

“Ukraine needs mask technology, but I’m not sure he will continue to support it,” said a person familiar with the Ukraine-SpaceX debate.

John Scott Railton, a researcher and expert on connectivity in conflict, called Starlink’s success in Ukraine “great marketing,” but how the Iranian protesters’ means of communication ultimately The question of whether to support “is a big challenge and a lot of things. It’s hard to see how it can be addressed with Starlink devices.”

“Aid efforts must be based on understanding how Iranians communicate, the risks they face, and the censorship evasion techniques they have used. need to be careful.”

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