Cliff May

On many occasions, Assad’s cyber police have shut down the Internet and mobile phone reception in order to disrupt dissident efforts to organize, and send photos and videos to the media. They have been using technology to target victims, too. Weiss notes: “It is widely believed that American journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Homs thanks to Iranian software that pinpointed her satellite phone transmissions.”

But that software almost certainly was not developed in Iran. Dubowitz and Dershowitz write that a long list of foreign companies – Chinese, European and even American -- have been selling the Iranians “the technologies they need to make this oppression possible.”

The dissidents have not given up. Anti-government groups, including the Free Syrian Army, have a few friends abroad – friends who have provided them with high-tech work-arounds that they’ve been using to continue to communicate and organize. Such technology also has enabled refugees to flee to Turkey, avoiding government security forces that would arrest or kill them.

Much more should be done. Last month, President Obama denounced Iran’s efforts to erect an “electronic curtain” – a conscious echo of the “Iron Curtain,” Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union’s efforts to isolate nations living under Communism from the Free World. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. government had decided to send “technical assistance, communications assistance” and other “nonlethal aid” to Syria. But the aid is to go only to the "nonviolent, political opposition," not to armed rebels who are the backbone of the resistance. What’s more, there appears to be no urgency to get even such modest initiatives underway.

Weiss recommends that the administration “take a cue from the European Parliament, which recently passed a resolution placing controls on the export of dual-use products, including those that can be used to violate human rights.” In Washington, Representative Chris Smith has sponsored a bill that would regulate the export of such technology.

Dubowitz and Dershowitz argue that “the entire Iranian telecom and technology industry should be blacklisted and closed to foreign companies unless they can certify to the U.S. government that any sales of technology to Iran will facilitate Iranians' access to safe and open communications.”

They note that this “is the aim of U.S. legislation that Senator Mark Kirk is looking to introduce as an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill currently under consideration in the Senate. Congressmen Ted Deutch and Robert Dold are working on introducing the same provisions in the House of Representatives. Western firms would be required to certify that they are not helping create and maintain Iranian ‘zones of electronic repression.’”

In a speech last June, Assad – who back in the 1990s headed the Syrian Computer Society – said that “the electronic army” has become “a real army in virtual reality.” That real army is now being deployed by him, by Iran’s theocrats and by other dictators against those who dare challenge their power and frustrate their ambitions. It’s high time for America and Europe to stopping helping those dictators – and to field an electronic army with a qualitative edge.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.