Is Iran about to seal itself off from the Internet?

With its "national information network" nearing completion, Iran may soon be able to seal itself off from the World Wide Web. The ambitious project to create a second, Halal Internet -- launched eight years ago at the beginning of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term -- is already up and running in government ministries and state bodies, where it shields users from what Iranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Reza Taqipour has called "untrustworthy" material controlled by the "hands of one or two specific countries" (presumably, Israel and the United States).  Now, it could be on its way to households and Internet cafes across the country. The BBC reports:

For months now, Iranian social media sites have been full of postings about slow download speeds and intermittent access...

While some put the blame on the country's overloaded and outdated internet infrastructure, others have a more sinister explanation for what is going on.

'When we get old we'll be able to tell our grandchildren about the time when a demon came along and nationalised the internet,' wrote Habil, an angry internet user from Tehran.

What Habil was referring to was the Iranian government's plan to create what it is calling a 'national information network' -- in effect a sort of corporate intranet system for the whole country.

The Wall Street Journal has more on why the regime is following in the footsteps of Cuba and North Korea:

"The leadership in Iran sees the project as a way to end the fight for control of the Internet, according to observers of Iranian policy inside and outside the country. Iran, already among the most sophisticated nations in online censoring, also promotes its national Internet as a cost-saving measure for consumers and as a way to uphold Islamic moral codes...

The unusual initiative appears part of a broader effort to confront what the regime now considers a major threat: an online invasion of Western ideas, culture and influence, primarily originating from the U.S. In recent speeches, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials have called this emerging conflict the "soft war."

No doubt, the 2009 post-election protests, which were at least partly enabled by Internet communication, are also on the supreme leader's mind heading into this year's electoral contest. That said, officials seem to be doing their best to sell the regime's story: Over the weekend, the news website YJC quoted one Internet police official as saying that Facebook, a "dangerous and disgusting spy tool," is responsible for a third of all divorces in Iran.

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Do bags of cash ever help the CIA get what it wants?

On Monday, the New York Times revealed that the CIA has been funneling tens of millions of dollars to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The cash payments -- delivered to his office every month -- arrived in suitcases, backpacks, and plastic bags, and were meant to buy the mercurial leader's loyalty. But according to the Times, the Langley-approved gravy train did more to fuel corruption in Afghanistan than anything else -- the very corruption the U.S. government has been crusading against.

None of this should be all that surprising. The CIA has a long history of showering cash on friendly heads of state, often with results that bear an uncanny resemblance to the CIA's efforts in Kabul. The agency got its first taste of what a few good suitcase-toting men could accomplish in 1948, as communists threatened to win elections in Italy, by launching a cash-transfer program that delivered large sums to its favored political party, the Christian Democrats. And it worked. The Christian Democrats beat the communists and cruised to victory. But this early success would later prove elusive. When, in 1970, the agency tried to reprise its campaign in Italy, it played an unwitting role in funding a failed neofascist coup and right-wing terrorism.

It's a pattern -- blinding success followed by crushing defeat -- that has become all too familiar in the agency's history.

When, in 1953, the CIA succeeded in overthrowing Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, it was regarded as the agency's finest moment. In one fell swoop, the CIA had stymied Soviet influence in the Middle East and secured a vital portion of global oil supplies. It gave the agency the impression that its freewheeling agents could topple governments on a whim -- not unlike how the CIA brought down the Taliban in Afghanistan -- and that American dollars would keep American interests safe. With the coup safely completed, Kim Roosevelt, the CIA officer who masterminded the coup, delivered $1 million in cash to Fazlollah Zahedi, who took over from Mossadegh as prime minister. Cash in hand, Zahedi promptly proceeded to do away with the opposition. And we all know what happened next, in 1979.

As in Tehran, the CIA found in Saigon that toppling a government was far easier than picking up the pieces afterwards. After a CIA-backed coup in 1963 overthrew Ngo Dinh Diem, chaos ensued, with one coup unleashing another amid the turmoil. Eventually, Nguyen Van Thieu consolidated power, and the CIA was quick to get behind him, dispensing $725,000 to the South Vietnamese leader between 1968 and 1969.  It was yet another losing investment to add to the agency's portfolio.

When the CIA has had difficulty fomenting coups, it has relied on a far more precise tool -- assassination.

Patrice Lumumba, for instance, posed a problem for the Eisenhower administration, which feared that the Congolese leader would create a Cuba in Africa. Though the Soviets were skeptical of Lumumba's communist credentials, Eisenhower ordered Lumumba killed, a mission the CIA successfully supported in 1961 via a promising new protege, Mobutu Sese Seko. With Lumumba out of the way and $250,000 in cash, guns, and ammunition from the CIA, Mobutu took control of the country and initiated a rapacious, murderous three-decade rule. Mobutu -- who was put on the CIA payroll --  proved a reliable Cold War ally for the United States, but he also laid the groundwork for the chaos and violence that has come to define modern-day Congo.

Perhaps one day the CIA will learn from its mistakes.

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