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U.S. satellite feeds to Iran jammed

U.S. government officials as well as Iranian Americans and communications satellite operators confirm that all U.S.-based satellite broadcasts to Iran are being jammed out of Cuba.
/ Source: NBC News producer

U.S. government officials as well as Iranian Americans and communications satellite operators confirm that all U.S.-based satellite broadcasts to Iran are being jammed out of Cuba, one of Iran’s major allies and a nation increasingly dependent on Iranian oil.

“WE ARE well aware of the jamming,” said one senior U.S. official familiar with intelligence on the matter. He said that it was almost certainly done as part of an effort by the Iranian government to eliminate dissent during a week of renewed student protests and the inauguration of Voice of America’s Farsi-language television programming to Iran.

Asked if the jamming were being done out of Cuba, the official would only say that it was “within the realm of possibility.”

Late Friday, however, three sources associated with the broadcast services confirmed that Loral Skynet, the operator of the Telstar-12 satellite used by the broadcasters, had determined the jamming was probably emanating from “the vicinity of Havana, Cuba.”

One of the sources said that Loral, working with transmitter location expert TLS Inc. of Chantilly, Va., had further fixed the location as “20 miles outside of Havana.” Cuba’s main electronic eavesdropping base, at Bejucal, is about 20 miles outside of the Cuban capital. The base, built for Cuba by the Russians in the early 1990’s, monitors and intercepts satellite communications.

Iran and Cuba have had increasingly close relations over the past several years with Iran supplying Cuba with oil. Cuba has extensive jamming experience, regularly interfering with the signal of the U.S. government-financed TV Marti.

Over the past several months, private Iranian-American groups have begun increasing their broadcasts into Iran using Telstar-12, a communications satellite over the eastern Atlantic. All are trying to encourage protests against the regime in Tehran.

Iranians, using small satellite dishes, have been able to receive the broadcast, whose mix of news, entertainment and exhortations to protest have gained a large audience, particularly in Tehran. Then on Sunday, the Voice of America began its Farsi-language broadcasts.

Not long afterward, the jamming began.

Over the past few days — as the fourth anniversary of the country’s most widespread protests approached — the broadcasts have been jammed, not in Iran but in the Americas, according to officials and investigators.

The Farsi language broadcasts, by the Los Angeles-based ParsTV, Azadi Television and Appadana TV, are uplinked in the US via Telstar-5, which is over the United States. They are then turned around at the Washington International Teleport in Alexandria, Va., where they are joined by the VOA broadcast and uplinked again to Telstar-12 over the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

It is the Telstar-12 uplink that is being jammed, say investigators for companies working with the broadcasters, cutting off broadcasts not only in Iran but in Europe and the rest of the Middle East as well. The jamming could emanate from anywhere within the satellite’s uplink footprint, which covers all the Eastern United States, the Caribbean and South America, say investigators. In the past, the Iranian government, using high-power transmitters on towers in cities such as Tehran have been able to jam it locally. The fact that TV viewers elsewhere can’t see it was the first hint that the jamming was happening on this side of the Atlantic.

InsertArt(1978110)Loral, which operates the satellite, declined comment on what it is doing in response. But in a letter that Loral Skynet’s Peggy Courter sent to Atlanta DTH, which manages the satellite services for Azadi, was quite clear in laying out its findings. The interference, it reported, had begun at 5:35 p.m. EDT on July 5, which was just after midnight in Tehran and shortly after the VOA began its broadcasts.

After running a series of tests, wrote Courter, “Skynet concluded the interference was caused by a third party” and asked TLS to investigate. TLS was able to find the “probable source of the interference” on Friday afternoon, identifying it as Havana.

“The jamming appears to be linked to the anniversary of the student uprisings,” said one investigator for a company working with the broadcasters who preferred to remain anonymous. “It’s malicious, not a prank. For us, it began yesterday, continues today. Not only are the Iranian signals jammed, but those of other nearby broadcasters are as well. We have a Chinese client who is being jammed.

“There are ways of determining the location of the interference,” he added. “It is complex and time-consuming. Basically, you look at minimal interference other nearby satellites are experiencing and then you triangulate.”

InsertArt(1978109)As for the actual jamming, its simply a matter of aiming a strong signal at the uplink transponder on the satellite and overwhelming the Farsi language broadcasters’ signals.

Said the investigator: “You need a dish, some power, not too much. You put up a test pattern ... and do a sweep and find the transponder on the satellite you want to jam. It could even be smaller than the standard 6-meter dish. It could be a small dish with a lot of power.”

BBC’s Media Monitoring Service, which provides capsules of various foreign TV broadcasts for subscribers, described the jamming as “a mysterious, interfering signal, rendering the broadcasts unwatchable.”

It reported problems began on Sunday, the day VOA began its broadcast, with the worst jamming taking place over the past two days with the jamming extending to all the Farsi-language broadcasts emanating from the United States.

Late Wednesday, monitors reported that jamming had become sporadic.

The anniversary of the student demonstrations, the largest since the fall of the shah in 1979, was Wednesday.

The senior U.S. official said the Iranian government “is concerned that these broadcasts have encouraged the student demonstrations and this is one way to stop that encouragement.”

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News, based in New York.