Elon Musk said he was going to take steps to offer Starlink, his satellite Internet offer to Iranians. He had already made this service available to Ukrainians after the start of the war against Russia. An increasingly political use of this little thumb from Elon Musk’s empire.
Ukraine, Antarctica and soon Iran? Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, announced on Monday September 19 that he intended to apply for an exemption to the American commercial embargo against Iran to deploy its satellite Internet network, Starlink.
It all started, as often with the whimsical boss of SpaceX and Tesla, with a tweet, the same day, announcing that Starlink was now available on all continents, including Antarctica.
Elon Musk, “friend” of Ukraine and Iranians
Connecting the South Pole is good, but for Iranian journalist Erfan Kasraie, who challenges Elon Musk on the microblogging site, offering the service to Iranians would be even better. “Is it technically possible? This could be a game-changer in the long run,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Starlink will seek an exemption from international sanctions in this regard,” replied Elon Musk. Satellite internet would “allow unhindered access to the network for all Iranians wherever they are in the territory,” says Hamza Mudassir, co-founder of British start-up consultancy Platypodes.eu and professor. in entrepreneurial strategy at the University of Cambridge.
The Internet in Iran is not only tightly controlled by the authorities. It is also difficult to access it in rural areas due to a lack of adequate infrastructure. To connect to the network of more than 2,500 satellites put into orbit by Starlink, all you need is a modem and an antenna. What, potentially, “change the deal”, as Erfan Kasraie points out.
Elon Musk also did not set foot in the Persian dish at a trivial moment. The country has been rocked by anti-regime protests for two days, in response to the death of a young Iranian woman following her arrest by vice squad in Tehran.
This is not the first time that the SpaceX boss has brandished his Starlink service in crisis situations or tense geopolitical contexts. It did the same in Ukraine where its satellite Internet service was made available to the Ukrainian army from February 2022 to compensate for the shortcomings of the traditional Internet network, targeted by Russian cyber-attacks.
This invasion of Starlink into the Russian-Ukrainian war had been a huge publicity stunt for Elon Musk’s efforts to promote the reliability of his service. “Starlink played a crucial role in providing the military coordination that allowed Ukrainian artillery to have an advantage [sur l’armée russe] in the first months of the conflict”, underlines the Smithsonian Magazine, the publication of the famous American institute of multidisciplinary research.
In a few months, Elon Musk thus used Starlink to present himself as a reliable ally of Ukraine against Russian aggression and in support of the Iranians against the authoritarian excesses of the Mullahs’ regime.
American Indians in the Tonga Islands
It is, in fact, a kind of red thread of all the communication of the multibillionaire around Starlink. “He uses it partly as a tool to shape his brand image as a committed businessman,” notes Hamza Mudassir.
From its commercial debut at the end of 2020, Starlink allowed Elon Musk to play the white knight of Internet access. The first to benefit from satellite Internet were a small community of American Indians – the Hoh tribe – in Washington State. The headlines were quick to multiply in the American press to praise a service that allowed “an isolated community to be propelled into the 21e century”.
Elon Musk, at the same time, made Starlink available to emergency services in Malden, a small town in Washington state in the northwest, which had been almost completely destroyed by fires in the fall of 2020. .
The Tesla boss then set out to build his reputation as a benefactor of connectivity on the international stage. This is how in February 2022, he offered free access to his satellite Internet to one of the islands of the Tonga archipelago, cut off from the world by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano a month later. .
These multiple free service offers have been good for Starlink’s business, Smithsonian Magazine points out. Publicity stunts that are no stranger to the increase of more than 245% in the number of paying subscribers of Starlink (110 dollars per month and 599 dollars for the acquisition of equipment to connect) since the beginning of the year , adds the magazine. There are more than 400,000 people in the world who have opted for satellite Internet made by Elon Musk.
Starlink has, in fact, served the economic interests of the entire Elon Musk empire, Hamza Mudassir wants to believe. The multibillionaire “never does a traditional advertising campaign for its products, such as Tesla cars, and the notoriety of its brands depends a lot on its public image”, recalls this specialist in business strategies.
This is one of the reasons that push the businessman to multiply the provocations on Twitter. But he sometimes goes too far, and his untimely outings on Twitter may have caused him problems with the authorities, such as the SEC (Security Exchange Commission, the American stock market policeman) who accused him of using Twitter to influence the stock price of companies.
A question of money and image. The “good works” carried out thanks to Starlink offer a more solid image benefit to Elon Musk. But all is not, however, all rosy in the kingdom of satellite Internet.
First, the apparent generosity of Elon Musk – who offers Starlink free of charge to Ukrainian soldiers and American Indians alike – hides a ruthless space race that prompted NASA to denounce Starlink’s strategy. The American agency points out that SpaceX is flooding space with its satellites. Elon Musk wants to send more than 30,000 into orbit. It would be a kind of privatization of space for the benefit of a single man, denounce some of the astrophysicists.
Elon Musk’s appetite for publicity stunts has also taken on new dimensions with the aid provided to Ukraine. It is no longer just about helping communities that are isolated or hit by natural disasters. “Should a businessman meddle in geopolitical issues? It’s a bit complex of God,” said Hamza Mudassir.
Elon Musk does not seem to worry about the geopolitical consequences of his service offers. However, Russia accused, Monday, September 19, the United States of “semi-direct intervention in the conflict because of the use of civil space technologies [comprendre Starlink] for military purposes”.
“I’m not sure that Iran will look favorably on an American company wanting to facilitate Iranians’ access to the Internet,” adds Hamza Mudassir. Even in China, scientists linked to the Chinese military suggested in an article published in May 2022 to develop capabilities to “destroy Starlink satellites”, because they could be used by the American air force in the event of a conflict.
Is Elon Musk aware of fueling the various diplomatic fires? Not sure. Shortly after indicating that he would be ready to offer Starlink to the Iranians, he replied to a user who suggested he do the same for Cuba with a simple “ok”.