The Islamic Republic of Iran's use of government institutions and funds to spy on its own citizens at home and abroad has brought to the fore once more the regime's disregard for individual liberties and human rights.
This has led to new sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on a "cyber threat group", 45 associated individuals, and a front company linked to Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).
Rana Intelligence Computing Company (Rana) is a front company for the MOIS, the Treasury said on September 17th.
Masked behind this company, it said, "the government of Iran employed a years-long malware campaign that targeted Iranian dissidents, journalists and international companies in the travel sector".
The 45 designated individuals served in various capacities while employed at Rana, including as managers, programmers, and hacking experts, the Treasury said.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) simultaneously released detailed information about the Iranian cyber threat group, known as Advanced Persistent Threat 39 (APT39), in a public intelligence alert.
The FBI advisory details eight separate and distinct sets of malware the ministry used, through Rana, to conduct computer intrusion activities.
By making the code public, the FBI is hindering the ministry's ability to continue its campaign, "ending the victimisation of thousands of individuals and organisations around the world", the Treasury said.
Collecting individuals' information
Sassan Tamgha, an intelligence analyst based in Iran, told Diyaruna the first step in controlling the public is to collect information about them on a regular and ongoing basis.
The case of imprisoned activists and dissidents in Iran demonstrates how active and advanced the Iranian regime is in espionage and gathering individuals' private information, he said.
According to the US Treasury, the MOIS, camouflaged as Rana, has played a key role in the Iranian regime's abuse and surveillance of its own citizens.
Through Rana, it said, cyber actors "used malicious cyber intrusion tools to target and monitor Iranian citizens, particularly dissidents, Iranian journalists, former government employees, environmentalists, refugees, university students and faculty, and employees at international non-governmental organisations".
"Some of these individuals were subjected to arrest and physical and psychological intimidation" by the ministry, the Treasury said.
In recent years, other than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)'s ever-increasing role in the country's economic, cultural and political fields, its intelligence arm has also been more active in collecting Iranians' information alongside the MOIS.
Tamgha said the rivalry between the IRGC's intelligence arm and the MOIS has led to the two acting against one another in the past year.
"Some in IRGC intelligence believe [former IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem] Soleimani's death was a result of competition between the two parallel organisations and the fact that his travel plans to and within Iraq were leaked by the MOIS," he said.
Funding for the activities of the IRGC intelligence comes from the government's general budget, most of which derives from oil sales, Tamgha said.
Targeted international sanctions have lowered Iran's oil revenue and as a result, its budget. Yet, "Iran has steadily increased its security, intelligence and military budget", said Faramarz Irani, an Iran-based political analyst.
This means instead of providing comfort and convenience to the public and managing Iran's chaotic economy, the Iranian regime spends its revenue on intelligence and espionage inside the country and exporting unrest and agitation to the region, said Irani.
He told Diyaruna the MOIS's main activities consist of plans to harass and torment domestic opponents. Meanwhile, "part of the IRGC intelligence arm's work is to draw attention to Iran's regional destabilisation activities to conceal the persistent pressure on Iranian citizens".
"As a front for the MOIS, Rana's targets are not only Iranians but also the citizens, companies and governments of at least 30 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Europe," he said.