Exporting Spy Technology to Iran

by Stephen D. Bryen


Presented by SDB Partners LLC

Eighteen years ago, led by the United States, the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, otherwise known as COCOM, was closed down, ostensibly because the Cold War was over and COCOM was not needed anymore.


COCOM included all the NATO countries plus Japan.  It ran an embargo against the sale of advanced technology to the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact countries, and China.  While COCOM never included certain countries such as Cuba and North Korea, the participants generally observed the embargo on a wider basis.  For that reason key enabling technologies were not sold to places like Syria, Iraq or Iran, or at least they were not supposed to.

During the mid to late 1980’s the United States led an effort, largely successful, to more formally include certain high risk countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya as formally embargoed.

COCOM controlled goods and technology for military use, and it also set limits on what was called “dual use” technology that could contribute significantly to military applications or intelligence gathering.

There was great pressure from exporters, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, to abandon COCOM and the Cinton Administration obliged them.

Unfortunately this was a big mistake, because it left the field wide open for the export of sensitive technologies to “thug” nations –that is, countries that routinely and ruthlessly suppressed dissent and engaged in aggressive operations against their neighbors.

While a supposed export control system was put in place theoretically to deal with the residue of COCOM’s activities, known as the Wassenaar Arrangement, this was more of a fiction than anything else, a pretend solution to a looming problem.

Now 18 years after COCOM’s closure, we are starting to learn some of the consequences.  The Guardian, a liberal UK newspaper, now is reporting that the UK is exporting advanced surveillance equipment to “countries run by repressive regimes…”  Among them are Iran and Syria.  According to the Guardian, some 30 UK companies were exporting such equipment, with the tacit (and perhaps also official) backing of the UK government, that ardently promotes exports.  

But it is not only UK companies involved in this kind of activity. According to the same newspaper, 50 or more U.S. companies were doing the same, followed by German and Israeli companies exporting spy technology.  

In response, the European council banned the sale of surveillance equipment to the Iranian government.  But the ban is a fraud, as the same companies are selling to Iranian commercial companies who then re-sell it to the Iranian government.

What is being sold?  Technology to spy on cellular phones that not only steals data from mobile phones, but also allows the “thug” regimes to turn the phones on and listen in on conversations at will.  The Iranian customer is MTN Irancell. 

Along with the cellular spyphone technology, sales are booming in Internet spying technology, so emails, Facebook, Twitter and all other social media are not only under surveillance, but can be altered and changed to suit repressive regimes.

Why is there such enthusiasm to sell goods and technology for spying to proven repressive governments and even to terrorist organizations.  No one has bothered to find out, but greed is certainly one of the motivations.

Meanwhile those who are fighting for freedom are paying a terrible price.
And we should remember that these same repressive regimes and terrorist organizations can do to us, what they can do to their own citizens using our own technology against us.  

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