Hackers struck the website of Iran’s foreign ministry on Sunday in the latest embarassment for the country’s government after months of protests rocked the country last year and continued into early 2023.
The website’s front page was defaced with crossed-out images of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as well as the country’s president, Ebrahim Raisi.
Their photos were displayed under images of two Iranian opposition figures, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi — founders of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK). The pair are considered pro-western dissidents aimed at the overthrow of the Iranian government in support of a secular republic.
Images indicated that the website was down throughout the day, finally being retaken and covered with a message announcing routine maintenance late Sunday. But the images had spread to the websites of hundreds of Iranian embassies before being taken down.
Translations of the Farsi text on the hacked pages read, “[t]here is a great revolution in Iran, the uprising will go until the demolition of the palace of oppression,” as well as “Death to Khamenei, Hail Rajavi.”
The group taking responsibility for the attack calls themselves “Ghiam ta Sarnegouni”, roughly translated to “uprising to overthrow”, and also obtained numerous documents in their hack of the foreign ministry — some have already been posted online, including passports belonging to top officials.
A source with knowledge of the extent of the attack described the group as having seized “tens of thousands” of documents. Among the more political of those seized included a report apparently authored by foreign ministry officials detailing an effort to form a committee with the sole purpose of discredit the MEK and its related organisations, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran, abroad.
Referring to the anti-regime MEK as “hypocrites”, the report reads: “During the first four sessions, the committee focused on understanding the nature of hypocrites and monitoring their movements and activities. Its primary mission was to discredit hypocrites and undermine their advantages and values. The committee found that this discrediting should take place in all spheres, not just political, with other committees handling other responsibilities.”
It’s a revealing look at how the Iranian foreign ministry remains hyper-focused on countering any opposition figures who could arise with both popular support in Iran and, dangerously for the regime, the backing of the United States or its allies in Europe. Still wary of such tactics from the west, the authoritarian Iranian government remembers all too well how the popular government of Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown by a CIA- and MI6-backed coup in 1953.
The Rajavis could very well represent those kinds of opposition figures most feared by the Iranian government. Though Massoud Rajavi vanished in 2003 and has not been heard from since, his wife Maryam remains the leader of the MEK and has seen her clout grow steadily on Capitol Hill in recent months and years to the point where her opposition movement now enjoys the support of Washington’s foreign policy establishment in Congress and elsewhere around the city. That development is thanks in no small part due to the failure of Iran’s government and the Biden administration to negotiate a return to the 2015 nuclear accord abandoned under the Trump presidency.
With few alternatives being offered to the maximum pressure-style relations pursued by the Trump administration in Washington today, the MEK has built popular support among members of both parties as a kind of government-in-waiting should the regime finally crumble, even as some critics decry how the group now manages a state in exile in Albania where its members have resided since the days of the Obama administration. Whether the US will take tangible steps to see that happen remains another question.
Ms Rajavi spoke remotely on Capitol Hill earlier this spring in support of a bipartisan resolution cheering on protests against Iran’s “morality police” and condemning the subsequent crackdowns by state security officials. Her address came at a press conference attended by House members of both parties.
Just last month, she cheered members of Congress once again for demonstrating “that the U.S. Congress remains on their side, as they seek a democratic, free republic based on the separation of religion and state” following the formation of a bipartisan caucus around the issue of women’s rights in Iran.