Earlier this week, the European Union imposed sanctions on Iranian cloud provider Abr Arvan, or ArvanCloud, stating that the company “is complicit in the Iranian government’s censorship and efforts to shut down the internet.”
The EU’s move comes amid a heavy-handed government crackdown on weeks of nationwide protests demanding more freedoms and women’s rights. More than 340 people have been killed by security forces so far, including dozens of children, while thousands have been thrown behind bars.
Meanwhile, authorities have shut down the internet on a large scale for most Iranians, including shutting down mobile data, disrupting social media platforms, slowing down internet services and blocking individual users to prevent Iranians from accessing information and these spread online and communicate securely.
Known for its strict internet censorship, which includes banning thousands of websites and government-mandated internet shutdowns, Iran has been working for years on a project to develop a sanitized, national internet that would function independently of the World Wide Web.
According to the EU, ArvanCloud is a “key partner” in the Iranian government’s project, which the Tehran-based private company denies.
IranWire spoke to two IT experts, Amir Rashidi and Mahdi Saremifar, about ArvanCloud’s activities and the reasons for the EU move.
The experience in November 2019
The Supreme Council of Cyberspace of Iran launched the National Information Network project in 2016, which aims to create an internet network that can be cut off from the World Wide Web and controlled by the Iranian government.
However, when Iran experienced an unprecedented near-total internet shutdown during angry demonstrations that rocked more than 100 cities and towns in November 2019, the National Information Network could not deliver.
“The Islamic Republic found that without the Internet, this network is just a bundle of wires and servers that cannot provide services and content that would allow Iran to be cut off from the international network,” says Saremifar, an IT journalist based in Canada.
In a 2020 speech, Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, referred to “certain basic services essential to the functioning of the National Information Network,” including a domestic search engine, a messaging system, an email System, an operating system and cloud services, according to Saremifar.
A few weeks after the November 2019 protests, “when it became clear that the National Information Network was useless without the internet, [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei sent a memo to the Ministry of Communications and Technology, ordering it to take responsibility for content and basic services in addition to infrastructure, i.e. cables, routers and servers.”
After that, the government launched the internet content delivery project, and private companies like ArvanCloud joined to provide the necessary services, says Saremifar.
ArvanCloud, a “key partner” in Iran’s plan to create a national intranet
According to the EU, ArvanCloud has been an “important partner” in the Iranian government’s project to build its own Iranian version of the Internet since 2020.
“Such a national intranet with connection points to the global Internet will help control the flow of information between the Iranian intranet and the global Internet,” it said.
The company, which is now subject to an EU travel ban and asset freeze, categorically denied these “baseless allegations” and said it was the victim of a “disinformation” campaign.
ArvanCloud had previously denied its involvement in censorship, stating that it “only provides cloud infrastructure” and that this technology “cannot have any impact on the projects to restrict or block the internet in Iran or anywhere in the world.”
ArvanCloud says it offers integrated cloud services such as Content Delivery Network, Cloud Server, Cloud Security, Object Storage, Video Platform, and Container Service.
It caught the attention of German media and governments last month after joint research by the non-profit German research center Corrective and two media outlets, taz and netzpolitik.org, concluded that Softqloud, an IT service provider headquartered in Germany, was a subsidiary by ArvanCloud and that it was one of the four digital connection gateways connecting Iran to the global internet.
The research was based on a range of reports published by Persian-language media, including the BBC Persian Service and the website Fact Nameh.
It said ArvanCloud was one of the contractors implementing the Abr-Iran project, launched after Khamenei’s orders to the Communications Ministry.
In late September, before the research was released, ArvanCloud announced that it had received a “termination notice” from Softqloud. “Based on our cancellation terms, we will migrate all our services within 3 months until 12/31/2022,” she added, insisting that Softqloud is a “trading partner” who is “responsible for ArvanCloud’s international customers and suppliers.” .
A Persian BBC report published in March 2021 reported that Iran’s Communications Ministry announced two months earlier that it had signed a contract with ArvanCloud and another company to work on the Abr Iran project.
BBC Persian previously reported that the Abr Iran project would make this possible “Iranian officials” to cut off Iran from the global internet and allow Iranians to access the home network.
A report by Fact Nameh, also based on official government communiqués, states that ArvanCloud provides cloud storage services for the Abr Iran project.
Evidence confirms that ArvanCloud is working with the Iranian government to develop the National Information Network.
But Rashidi, a US-based cybersecurity and digital rights researcher, says it is “really very strange that the EU has sanctioned a company that is building the infrastructure, but not the people and companies that the evidence shows it is directly involved in the oppression of the internet.”
ArvanCloud offers cloud services that “are part of a network’s infrastructure,” says Rashidi.
“What this sanction does is that it cuts off one of the important components of the infrastructure of the network in Iran from the world. That is exactly what the Islamic Republic wants.”
According to Saremifar, it is not correct to say that companies that offer infrastructure services like ArvanCloud “only develop the technological infrastructure”.
“In fact, they support the Islamic Republic’s strategy of building the National Information Network, which mainly aims to cut off the Iranian network from the world network,” one of the tools the regime uses to “guarantee its own survival.”