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


The White House has engaged in talks with Elon Musk about the possibility of setting up SpaceX’s satellite internet service Starlink in Iran, several officials familiar with the discussions told CNN.

The talks, which have not previously been reported, come as the Biden administration searches for ways to support the Iranian protest movement that exploded just over a month ago after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died under suspicious circumstances after being arrested by the country̵[ads1]7;s morale department. the 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 gas to do everything we can to support the aspirations of the Iranian people,” a senior administration official told CNN. “That is our policy, period. At the same time, it is truly an Iranian movement led by young girls and spreading to other parts of society. And we do not in any way want to eclipse their movement.”

If a plan is adopted, it would be the second major theater this year — along with Ukraine — in which the U.S. government has turned to Starlink to help provide vital telecommunications services, even as questions swirl about Musk’s trustworthiness in his dealings with the US government.

“He’s a loose cannon we can never predict,” said a senior U.S. defense official familiar with the government’s discussions with Musk and SpaceX over Ukraine.

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

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 per month to fund Starlink in Ukraine, taking the burden off SpaceX. In response to that reporting, Musk abruptly announced on Twitter that he had withdrawn the funding request.

The Pentagon has said this week that talks with SpaceX about Ukraine are ongoing, after documents obtained by CNN showed that SpaceX warned the Pentagon last month that it could no longer fund or operate Starlink in Ukraine “indefinitely.”

SpaceX claims that providing Starlink services in Ukraine has cost it $80 million so far, and that the cost by the end of the year will exceed $100 million. SpaceX did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

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.

A picture taken by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022 shows Iranian demonstrators on the streets of Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody.

The situation with Starlink and Ukraine does not appear to have deterred the White House from pursuing Starlink, which uses satellites to transmit Internet services to compact terminals on the ground. SpaceX has around 3,000 such satellites currently in orbit and approximately 20,000 terminals on the ground in Ukraine.

President Joe Biden has wanted to be more bullish and openly supportive of the Iranian protesters than his former boss, President Barack Obama, who largely chose to stay out of an Iranian protest movement that erupted in 2009. Biden said in a statement on Oct. 3 that his administration “stands with Iranian women and all the citizens of Iran 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 have access to the Internet on their phones and everywhere else,” the senior administration said. “And so Starlink is one option, but it’s not the only option.”

It is not clear whether the administration has offered to pay for the Starlink terminals to be set up in Iran. In its letter to the Pentagon in September, SpaceX said it could no longer donate Starlink terminals to Ukraine or pay for the ongoing service and requested that the Pentagon take over funding for Ukraine’s government and military use of Starlink, which SpaceX claims will cost more than 120 million dollars for the rest of the year and could cost close to $400 million in the next 12 months.

Some US officials hope that Starlink’s ground terminals will one day become as widespread in Iran as satellite TV dishes. This technology is also technically banned by the regime, but is still abundant across the country, the sources noted. Currently, there are “very few” Starlink terminals already operating in Iran, Musk said said in a tweet last week.

But there are several major problems with that plan. Chief among them is that Starlink’s satellites require physical terminals on the ground to connect, and their signals can be easy to detect. Smuggling the devices across the border into Iran is only the first challenge, before they would then hypothetically be used by undisciplined protesters under the harsh gaze of Iran’s security services.

“I’m really concerned that there is a lack of knowledge about the security or even training on how people can hide these signals,” said Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group, who was forced to flee Iran after the protests in 2009. “It’s going to be very risky for people in Iran to use it on a massive scale.”

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

US-backed efforts, he said, involve significant risk.

“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 U.S. government is involved in distribution, that would be another crime in the eyes of the Iranian government, and people could be charged with that, really difficult and harsh charges.”

While support for the protesters’ means of communication is an area where the administration feels it can take concrete action, one criticism of the administration is that it is only now being taken up seriously.

“Why haven’t we figured this out before?” a person involved in the discussions told CNN. “We are putting so much effort into the JCPOA [nuclear deal]. It is an ongoing national security interest to get rid of this regime. Here’s how you do it: empower these democrats on the ground in Iran, and the most important way to do that is to find ways to support technology like that in the country, and we haven’t, we’ve failed.”

The top administration official told CNN that right now the JCPOA is “not on the agenda.” The National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, echoed that Thursday, telling reporters that “we are far apart with the Iranians on a return to the deal.”

“What we are focusing on is making sure we hold the regime accountable for the way they treat protesters in the country,” he said.

The White House, government technologists and Musk and his team are still working to solve 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 will put those who use it at risk of being identified and harmed by their government in some way,” said the senior administrative official. . “All elements of the Biden administration are in lockstep on that.”

The official also touted the merits of a policy change the Biden administration made last month in an effort to expand Internet service to Iranians. The license issued by the Treasury Department will give US technology companies greater freedom to operate in heavily sanctioned Iran.

“The beauty of General License D-2 is that it allows private companies to decide for themselves what products and services to offer in Iran,” the official said.

Musk has said that if the terminals can enter Iran, SpaceX has already activated the signal. But the way he has acted in the discussions surrounding Ukraine has only increased concerns about the significant influence the world’s richest man can now have over some of the world’s biggest conflicts.

SpaceX Starlink Internet Terminal installed in Odesa, southern Ukraine, March 15, 2022.

Last weekend, Musk tweeted: “To hell with it…even if Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions from taxpayers, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine’s government for free,” he wrote on Saturday. Then on Monday, he stated 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, to include Starlink,” adding that the Pentagon had not yet paid anything for Starlink.

At the same time, there have been many reports of Starlink disruptions along the front line as Ukraine has pushed into Russian-occupied areas. A person familiar with the discussions with SpaceX told CNN that Ukraine would have to proactively send a request that the service be turned on when an area is retaken.

On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov expressed confidence that funding for Starlink 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 up.

Musk has pointed to Ukrainian officials’ public praise of 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 bring both sides of the conflict to the same level as possible, to avoid a one-sided situation” and called it “peace at the least possible cost,” Musk replied: “Exactly .”

Nevertheless, there are still concerns about how dependent Ukraine is on Starlink.

“Ukraine needs Musk’s technology, but they don’t know if he will continue to support them,” said a person familiar with the discussions between Ukraine and SpaceX.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher and expert on conflict connectivity, called the success of Starlink in Ukraine “great marketing,” but the question of how to ultimately support Iran’s protestors’ means of communication “is a big challenge, and it’s much harder to see how it can be solved by Starlink devices.”

“Efforts to help should be based on understanding how Iranians communicate, the risks they face, and the censorship circumvention technologies they have experience using. We should be engaged, but wary of silver bullet ideas.”

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