CNN exclusive: After Ukraine, Biden administration turns to Musk’s satellite internet for Iran


The White House has begun talks with Elon Musk about the possibility of deploying SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet service in Iran, several officials familiar with the discussions told CNN.

The talks, which have not been previously reported, come as the Biden administration is looking for ways to support the protest movement in Iran that erupted just over a month ago after the country’s moral arrest in the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini under suspicious circumstances. the police

The White House sees Starlink’s compact and easy-to-use technology as a potential solution to the Iranian regime’s aggressive efforts to restrict internet access and communications for activists.

“We have the gas to do everything we can to support the aspirations of the Iranian people,” a senior administration official told CNN. “That’s our policy, period. At the same time, it is really an Iranian movement led by young girls and spreading to other aspects of society. And we don’t want to eclipse their movement in any way.”

If a plan were to be implemented, it would be the second major theater this year — along with Ukraine — where the US government has turned to Starlink to help provide crucial telecommunications services, even as questions swirl about Musk’s reliability in his dealings with the US government.

“It’s a loose cannon that we can never anticipate,” said a senior US defense official familiar with the government’s discussions with Musk and SpaceX about Ukraine.

Concerns about Musk’s unpredictable tendencies were heightened when CNN reported last week that Musk’s company, SpaceX, had quietly asked the Pentagon to pay tens of millions of dollars a month to fund Starlink in Ukraine and take the burden off SpaceX. In response to that report, Musk suddenly announced on Twitter that he had withdrawn the funding request.

The Pentagon said this week that talks with SpaceX about Ukraine are ongoing, with documents obtained by CNN showing that SpaceX warned the Pentagon last month that it could no longer fund or serve Ukraine “indefinitely.”

SpaceX says that providing Starlink services in Ukraine has cost $80 million so far and that the cost will exceed $100 million by the end of the year. SpaceX did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

The needs of Iranian protesters and Ukrainian soldiers and how they would use Starlink are very different. And experts warn that while Ukraine’s Starlink has been critical to battlefield success, getting Starlink into Iran would be far more challenging and dangerous.

A photo obtained by AFP from outside Iran shows Iranian protesters on the streets of Tehran on September 21, 2022 in support of Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody.

The Starlink and Ukraine situation doesn’t seem to have stopped the White House from going after Starlink, which uses satellites to condense internet service into terminals on the ground. SpaceX currently has about 3,000 satellites in orbit and about 20,000 terminals on the ground in Ukraine.

President Joe Biden, who decided to stay out of the Iranian protest movement that erupted in 2009, has wanted to give the Iranian protesters a clearer and broader view than his former leader, President Barack Obama. As Biden said in a statement on October 3. his administration “stands with Iranian women and all Iranian citizens who are inspiring the world with their courage” and is trying to make it easier for Iranians to access the Internet.

“We’re interested in finding ways to make sure that Iranians can access the Internet on their phones and everywhere else,” the senior administration official said. “And so Starlink is an option, but it’s not the only option.”

It is unclear whether the administration has offered to pay for Starlink terminals to be established in Iran. In a letter to the Pentagon in September, SpaceX said it could not provide the Starlink terminal to Ukraine or pay for its continued service and demanded that the Pentagon take over funding for the Ukrainian government and military use of Starlink, which SpaceX says would cost more. It could cost around $120 million for the full year and $400 million over the next 12 months.

Some U.S. officials hope that Starlink’s ground terminals will one day become as prevalent as Iran’s satellite TV antennas. This technology is also technically outlawed by the regime, but is still abundant throughout the country, sources said. Today, there are already “very few” Starlink terminals in operation in Iran, Musk he said in a tweet last week

But that plan has several significant problems. Chief among these is that Starlink’s satellites require physical terminals on the ground to connect to, and their signals can be easily detected. Smuggling the units across the border into Iran is just the first challenge, before undisciplined protesters hypothetically use them under the watchful eye of Iran’s security services.

“I’m really worried about the lack of knowledge about security or even training on how people can hide these signals,” said Amir Rashidi, director of Internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group, who was forced to flee Iran. The 2009 protests. “It will be really dangerous for the people of Iran to use it on a massive scale.”

Rashidi said more instructional materials, in Farsi, are needed to help protesters understand how to better cover their routes and use equipment safely. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union says more investment is needed in prevention tools and work.

He said the US-backed efforts are at great risk.

“As soon as you’re arrested, the first charge is that you’re a spy, you’re working for the CIA, you’re working for a British intelligence service,” he said. “If the US government is involved in the distribution, that would be another crime in the eyes of the Iranian government and people can be blamed, very difficult and tough.”

While support for protestors’ means of communication is an area where the administration believes it can take concrete action, criticism of the administration is that it is now being seriously addressed.

“Why didn’t we figure that out sooner?” a person involved in the discussions told CNN. “We are putting a lot of effort into the JCPOA [nuclear deal]. It is in the continuing interest of national security to remove this regime. Here’s how: empowering those democrats on the ground in Iran, and the first way to do that is to find ways to support that kind of technology in the country, and we haven’t, we’ve failed.”

A senior administration official told CNN that the JCPOA is “not on the agenda” right now. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, echoed that on Thursday, telling reporters that “we are a long way from the Iranians in terms of getting back to the deal.”

“We are focused on making sure that we are holding the regime accountable for the way they are treating the protesters in the country,” he said.

The White House, government technologists and Musk and his team are still working to address the big challenges of Starlink and other communications technologies, officials said.

“When it comes to more active USG involvement, without getting into specific technologies, we’re always thinking about whether those using a technology would be at risk of being identified and harmed by their government in some way,” said a senior administration official. . “Every element of the Biden administration is locked in on that.”

The official also highlighted the benefits of the Biden administration’s policy change last month in an effort to expand Internet services to Iranians. The license, issued by the Treasury Department, would give US tech companies considerable freedom to operate in heavily sanctioned Iran.

“The beauty of the D-2 General License is that it allows private companies to decide what products and services to offer within Iran,” the official said.

Musk said that if the terminals go into Iran, SpaceX has already activated the signal. But the way he has acted in the Ukraine debate has only added to concerns about the potential influence of the world’s richest man in the world’s biggest conflicts.

The SpaceX Starlink Internet Terminal was installed in Odesa, southern Ukraine on March 15, 2022.

Last weekend, Musk he tweeted: “Hell… even though Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions of taxpayer dollars, we will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free,” he wrote on Saturday. Then on Monday, in no uncertain terms, he said, “SpaceX has already withdrawn its funding request.”

Earlier this week, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that the department “continues to discuss a number of issues with SpaceX, including Starlink,” and that the Pentagon has yet to pay anything for Starlink.

At the same time, there have been numerous reports of Starlink outages across the front as Ukraine has pushed into Russian-occupied areas. A person familiar with the discussions with SpaceX told CNN that Ukraine had to be proactive in activating the service when a request field returns.

On Thursday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksi Reznikov expressed confidence that funding for Starlink will continue, telling Politico: “I know we won’t have any problems.” If the funding doesn’t come from SpaceX, the Pentagon, Europe and private donors are hoping to step up.

Musk has pointed to Ukrainian officials’ public praise of SpaceX and Starlink — with a senior Ukrainian official, Mykhailo Fedorov, calling Musk “among the world’s top private donors to Ukraine” — as evidence that he is not trying to undermine the Ukrainian struggle.

When someone tweeted on Tuesday that Musk was “trying to bring both sides of the conflict to the same level as possible to avoid a one-sided situation,” calling it “Peace at the lowest cost,” Musk replied, “Exactly.”

However, there are concerns about Ukraine’s dependence on Starlink.

“Ukraine needs Musk’s technology, but they don’t know if he will continue to help,” said a person familiar with the discussions between Ukraine and SpaceX.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher and expert on conflict connectivity, said that Starlink’s success in Ukraine is “a lot of marketing”, but ultimately how to support the communication channels of Iranian protesters is “a big challenge, and there are many”. it’s harder to see how Starlink devices can address it.”

“Efforts to help must be based on understanding how Iranians communicate, the risks they face and the technologies they have experience using to avoid censorship. We should be engaged, but beware of silver linings.”