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Will Elon Musk save Iran?

After helping Ukraine with encrypted communication during the war, Elon Musk will be able to help the Iranian people as well, this time not against an enemy from outside But rather Against the government from a country that shuts down the internet to suppress demonstrations

Starlink satellite dishes. Image:
Starlink satellite dishes. Image:

All the sin of 22-year-old Masha Amini was to go out on the street without a head covering. In Iran, that's enough to kill you. She was arrested with her friends and taken to the police station in a car. In the short time the trip took, the police officers had time to violently abuse the young woman and cause irreversible damage to her brain. She lost consciousness and died three days later in the hospital.

And history repeated itself: the Iranian street exploded, with demonstrations turning violent, and the authorities turned off the Internet.

There is a good reason why any totalitarian regime anxious to exist, rushes to turn off the Internet under threat from within. We learn from history that governments fall only when "everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows".

Let's explain for a moment what the phrase means.

In any country with existential problems - a failing economy, citizens who feel threatened and similar problems - many of the citizens know very well that their situation is bad. They are angry and depressed, but they will not dare to compensate here by themselves. After all, one protesting citizen cannot change the world. The police will arrest him immediately at best, or arrest him at worst. And so, "everyone knows" it's evil, but they don't know if the other citizens also know it, so no one dares to take independent action.

The next stage is the one where citizens meet together, exchange opinions, talk and realize that everyone knows evil. Now you "know that everyone knows", and are still not sure whether to take action, because you are not convinced that the rest "know that everyone knows", and will join you themselves.

The third and critical stage is when mass demonstrations already begin. At this point, the entire public is exposed to the demonstrations on television and online, and understands that all the other citizens are disgruntled and ready for action - and since everyone is watching the internet at the same time and exposed to the same content, one can be sure that - "everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows". From this point on, the demonstrations may get stronger and get out of control - to the point of a government coup, as happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring and in East Germany thirty years ago.

Pay attention to the condition I mentioned: the public needs to know that the demonstrations are happening. He needs to know that they are big enough to reflect public opinion in the country. For that he needs to get coverage of the demonstrations. The government may control the official television and radio broadcasts, but the public should get the information from the internet: from social networks.

And so, the authorities in Iran chose to shut down the network.

For the past two weeks, the citizens of Iran have been suffering from a network that is on and off intermittently. Facebook and YouTube are not working to begin with, but now WhatsApp and Instagram have also stopped working. The interruptions are especially noticeable during the day, during the hours when the most extreme demonstrations take place. Dozens of civilians - at least seventy, according to estimates - have already been killed during the demonstrations, but it is difficult to find coverage of what is happening on the Iranian street. The information simply does not manage to get onto the Internet, but bit by bit. That's not how you run a revolution.

But maybe Elon Musk will be able to save the situation.

In recent years, Elon Musk has established an array of thousands of holiday satellites around the globe. Together, they provide good quality internet to selected areas of the planet. One of those areas was, especially in recent times, Ukraine. Even when the Russian army occupied large parts of the country and undermined its media, the Ukrainian government managed to continue to run the country successfully. The government continued to communicate with the army and the fighting forces, managed the hospitals and banks and allowed citizens to receive online services from government offices.

One of the reasons for this impressive success was the container that arrived in Ukraine in an emergency shipment at the beginning of the war: a container that contained thousands of satellite dishes that allow Ukrainians to connect to Musk's Starlink internet network. The Ukrainians actually abandoned the data transmission cables on the ground - which occupying forces like the Russians can easily take over - and switched to the internet coming from outer space. All they need for this is a satellite dish that can fit in a pizza tray - and here they have access to the international Internet.

Now Musk wants to repeat the same achievement - in Iran.

"Operating Starlink..." he wrote last Friday, in response to the American Secretary of State's statement that the state will act to provide the citizens of Iran with a way to deal with the regime's censorship[1].

Now Iranian citizens have permission to connect to the international internet. There's just one problem: they need to get the Starlink satellite dishes before they can do that. And right now, it's an insurmountable obstacle.

Here, actually, the dog is buried. The Iranian government can stop large shipments to its territory. In order for the plates to reach the citizens successfully, it will be necessary to smuggle them especially under the noses of the authorities. This is not an impossible task, but it will certainly make it difficult to achieve the ultimate goal of bringing the Internet to every person in the country. Even if the nations of the world succeed in smuggling thousands of satellite dishes to Iran, the authorities will be able to collect and confiscate them. In any case, it is hard to believe that a large enough number of plates will arrive in time - that is, in the next month - before the authorities manage to suppress the current demonstrations with a heavy hand.

And yet, in the long term it is quite possible that this is a revolution in the stages of realization. After the citizens of Iran are once again oppressed to the ground, they will have several years to find themselves a smuggled satellite dish - perhaps one that will serve the entire building in which they will live. The authorities will indeed be able to trace the location of some of the plates, but not all. In the next demonstration, a larger proportion of citizens will have access to the Internet. They will be able to film the demonstrations, the disturbances and the violence the government uses against them. They will be able to share all these with others inside and outside the country. They will make sure that "everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows".

A decade from now, Elon Musk may be remembered as one of the great saviors of Iran.