After Ukraine, the Biden administration turns to Musk’s satellite internet for Iran
(CNN) – The White House has entered into talks with Elon Musk on the possibility of setting up SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service in Iran, several officials familiar with the discussions told CNN.
The conversations, which have not previously been reported, come as the Biden administration seeks ways to support the Iranian protest movement that exploded just over a month ago following the death of Mahsa Amini, 22 years, in suspicious circumstances after being detained by the morality of the country. police.
The White House sees Starlink’s compact, easy-to-use technology as a potential solution to the Iranian regime’s aggressive efforts to restrict activists’ internet access and communications.
“We have our foot on the accelerator to do everything in our power to support the aspirations of the Iranian people,” a senior administration official told CNN. “It’s our policy, period. At the same time, it is very much an Iranian girl-led movement that is spreading to other aspects of society. And we don’t want to eclipse their movement in any way.
If a plan passes, it would be the second big theater this year – along with Ukraine – where the US government has turned to Starlink to help deliver crucial telecommunications services, even as questions swirl 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 talks with Musk and SpaceX over Ukraine.
Concerns about Musk’s unpredictable tendencies intensified after CNN first reported last week that Musk’s company, SpaceX, had quietly asked the Pentagon to pay tens of millions of dollars a month to fund Starlink in Ukraine and lighten SpaceX. In response to this report, Musk then abruptly announced on Twitter that he had withdrawn the funding request.
The Pentagon said this week that talks with SpaceX over Ukraine were underway, after documents obtained by CNN showed that SpaceX warned the Pentagon last month that it could no longer fund or maintain Starlink in Ukraine. “For an undetermined time”.
SpaceX says providing Starlink services in Ukraine has cost it $80 million so far and by the end of the year the costs will exceed $100 million. SpaceX did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
A solution or a risk for Iranian militants?
The needs of Iranian protesters and Ukrainian soldiers, and how they would use Starlink, are very different. And experts warn that while Starlink in Ukraine has been critical to battlefield successes, getting Starlink into Iran would be a much bigger and potentially more dangerous challenge.
The situation with Starlink and Ukraine does not appear to have deterred the White House from suing Starlink, which uses satellites to deliver Internet service to compact ground terminals. SpaceX has about 3,000 such satellites currently in orbit and about 20,000 ground terminals in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden has wanted to be more optimistic and openly supportive of Iranian protesters than his former boss, President Barack Obama, who chose to largely stay away from an Iranian protest movement that erupted in 2009. Biden said in a statement Oct. 3 that his administration “stands with Iranian women and all Iranian citizens who inspire the world with their bravery” and is trying to make it easier for Iranians to access the internet.
“We are interested in finding ways to ensure that the Iranian people can access the internet on their phones and everywhere else,” the senior administration official said. “And so Starlink is an option, but it’s not the only option.”
It is unclear whether the administration has offered to pay for the installation of Starlink terminals in Iran. In its letter to the Pentagon in September, SpaceX said it could no longer donate Starlink terminals to Ukraine or pay for its continued service and requested that the Pentagon bear Ukrainian government funding and military use. from Starlink, which SpaceX says will cost more than $120 million for the rest of the year and could cost nearly $400 million for the next 12 months.
Some US officials hope that Starlink ground terminals will one day become as prevalent in Iran as satellite dishes. The technology is also technically banned by the regime, but is nonetheless plentiful across the country, the sources noted. Currently, there are “very few” Starlink terminals already operating in Iran, Musk said in a tweet Last week.
But there are several glaring problems with this plan. Chief among them is that Starlink’s satellites require physical terminals on the ground to connect, and their signals might be easy to detect. Smuggling the units across the border into Iran is only the first challenge, before they are hypothetically used by unruly protesters under the harsh gaze of Iran’s security services.
“I’m really concerned about the lack of knowledge about security or even how people can hide these signals,” said Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group, who was forced to fleeing Iran after the 2009 protests. “It’s going to be really risky for Iranians to use it on a large scale.”
Rashidi said more instructional materials are needed, in Farsi, to help protesters understand how to better cover their tracks and use equipment safely. He argues that more investment is needed in circumvention tools and the work of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.
US-backed efforts, he said, carry significant risks.
“As soon as we are arrested, the first charge is that you are a spy, you work for the CIA, you work for a British intelligence service,” he said. “If the US government is involved in the distribution, that would be another crime in the eyes of the Iranian government and people could be charged with it, really tough and tough charges.”
“Why didn’t we understand this sooner? »
While support for protesters’ means of communication is an area where the administration believes it can take concrete action, one criticism of the administration is that it is only now being seriously addressed.
“Why didn’t we understand this sooner? a person involved in the talks told CNN. “We put so much effort into the JCPOA [nuclear deal]. It is in the continuing interest of national security to get rid of this regime. Here’s how: Empower those democrats on the ground in Iran and the best way to do that is to find ways to support technology like that in the country, and we haven’t done that, we’ve failed.
The senior administration official told CNN that at this time the JCPOA is “not on the agenda.” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby echoed that on Thursday, telling reporters that “we are way off the Iranians in terms of getting back to the deal.”
“What we are focused on is making sure we hold the regime accountable for how it treats protesters in the country,” he said.
The White House, government technologists and Musk and his team are still working, however, to address the biggest challenges with Starlink and other communications technologies, officials said.
“When it comes to more active USG involvement, without going into specific technologies, we always consider whether a technology would put those who use it at risk of being identified and harmed by their government from a one way or another,” the senior administration official said. . “All elements of the Biden administration are in tune with this.”
The official also touted the benefits of a policy shift made by the Biden administration last month in an effort to extend internet services to Iranians. The license issued by the Treasury Department would give US tech companies greater freedom to operate in a highly sanctioned Iran.
“The beauty of the D-2 general license is that it allows private companies to decide for themselves what products and services to offer in Iran,” the official said.
Musk’s unpredictability on Ukraine raises concerns
Musk said if the terminals can enter Iran, SpaceX has already activated the signal. But the way he has acted in talks around Ukraine has only added to concerns about the sweeping influence the world’s richest man can now wield over some of the world’s biggest conflicts. .
Last weekend, Musk tweeted“Damn it…even if Starlink continues to lose money and other companies receive billions of taxpayer dollars, we will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free,” he wrote on Saturday. Then on Monday, he said unequivocally, “SpaceX has already withdrawn its request for funding.”
Earlier this week, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that the department “continues to discuss various issues with SpaceX, including Starlink,” adding that the Pentagon has not yet paid anything for Starlink.
At the same time, there are numerous reports of Starlink outages along the frontline as Ukraine pushes into Russian-occupied areas. A person familiar with discussions with SpaceX told CNN that Ukraine needs to proactively request that the service be activated when an area is taken over.
On Thursday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov expressed confidence that Starlink funding would continue, telling Politico, “I know we won’t have a problem.” If the funding doesn’t come from SpaceX, he said, he expects the Pentagon, Europe and private donors to step in.
Musk pointed to Ukrainian officials’ public praise for SpaceX and Starlink — a senior Ukrainian official, Mykhailo Fedorov, called Musk “among the world’s top private donors supporting Ukraine” — as evidence that he is not trying to undermine the Ukrainians’ fight.
When someone tweeted on Tuesday that Musk was “trying to put both sides of the conflict on the same level as possible, to avoid a one-sided situation”, calling it “Peace at the lowest cost”, Musk replied: “Exactly .”
Still, concerns remain about Ukraine’s reliance on Starlink.
“Ukraine needs Musk’s technology, but they don’t know if he will continue to support them,” said a person familiar with Ukraine’s talks with SpaceX.
Conflict connectivity researcher and expert John Scott-Railton called Starlink’s success in Ukraine “great marketing,” but the question of how to ultimately support Iranian protesters’ means of communication “is a huge challenge, and it’s much harder to see how this could be solved by Starlink devices.
“Aid efforts should be based on understanding how Iranians communicate, the risks they face, and the censorship circumvention technologies they are used to using. We should be committed, but beware of quick-fix ideas.