Iran updates budget to allocate $71.4 million to 'cyberspace' operations

The Tehran government has updated its national budget to allocate an extra $71.4 million for the cyberspace programs of two government-controlled organizations.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) agency's "cyberspace activists" program received $63 million, and the "cyber section" of the Islamic Development Organization (IDO) received another $8.4 million, IRNA, the official news agency of the Iranian government, reported today.

Both organizations are part of Iran's extensive government-controlled media sector.

Experts told The Record today they believe the new funds will provide a boost for the country's online influence and propaganda operations.

For the past four years, the Iranian government has used state-run news agencies and bot armies to control the online messaging around certain topics, both inside the country and abroad.

"This announcement seems to be the budget for domestic public influence operations," Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with ARTICLE19 and DPhil researcher at the University of Oxford, told The Record today.

"The IRIB is the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which controls all television and radio in Iran," Alimardani added.

"The IRIB is operated largely under the purview of the Supreme Leader (he appoints the director of the IRIB ) and the policies and personnel of the IRIB are very closely aligned with the IRGC."

"The 'IRIB Cyber Operatives' project is unknown, but it's related to the online projects of the IRIB," the ARTICLE19 researcher said.

"They have social media influencers on their pay, and many of their meetings and official statements of the IRIB cyber operations seem to allude to their need to have presence and influence on foreign platforms, but these allude to targetting national audiences, rather than foreign operations."

IDO is a smaller organization compared to IRIB but is also a state-run media conglomerate, which, among other things, also owns the Mehr News Agency and Tehran Times.

Just like IRIB, IDO has spent a lot of time promoting Iran-sanctioned messages and themes using news sites and online personas managed by its employees.

Alimardani said both organizations have had bot networks taken down as "Iranian foreign influence operations" by both Facebook and Twitter in recent years.

The ARTICLE19 researcher said the two agencies only run influence operations and are not associated with Iran's offensive hacking groups, which are usually run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"Iran has a wide array of agencies dealing with those [offensive cyber operations] which are run by IRGC and security agencies. Their budget is classified," Alimardani said.

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Catalin Cimpanu

Catalin Cimpanu is a cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He previously worked at ZDNet and Bleeping Computer, where he became a well-known name in the industry for his constant scoops on new vulnerabilities, cyberattacks, and law enforcement actions against hackers.