World must beware Iranian regime’s propaganda
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh/Arab News/March 12/18
على العالم أن يكون حذراً من اساليب الدعاية الإيرانية
The Iranian regime is intensifying its efforts to suppress, intimidate and discredit the opposition, journalists, and reporters.
This week, the BBC complained to the UN about the harassment of its Persian service’s journalists by the Iranian regime, alleging that they faced a campaign of intimidation, including threats, arrests of relatives and travel bans.
Iran’s latest crackdown highlights the notion that the Iranian regime is pursuing a much more intensive strategy to silence journalists and the opposition. It also indicates that the Iranian authorities are continuing to violate fundamental human rights. In addition, the 2017 re-election of the so-called moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has empowered hard-line organizations such as the Judiciary, the Ministry of Intelligence (Ettela’at) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to ratchet up their crackdown.
The clerical regime is facing more and more problems, especially in the wake of the mass uprising that spread across every major Iranian city in late December and early January. Those demonstrations included chants of “death to the dictator” and expressions of disgust with Iranian politics, although they reportedly began with more targeted protests against the economic hardships faced by the vast majority of the public.
The uprising demonstrated the Iranian people’s eagerness to establish a democratic alternative to the religious dictatorship that has been reigning for nearly 40 years. As the world becomes increasingly aware of this situation, it is necessarily waking up to the legitimacy of Iran’s resistance movement and the validity of its observations about Iranian affairs.
As Tehran lacks both the political will and the capacity to address its own endemic corruption and its ideological misalignment with the will of the Iranian people, the regime is responding in the only way it knows how: It is stepping up its efforts to discredit the resistance in the eyes of the international community.
Of course, dissident organizations have always been subject to physical and political repression by the clerical authorities. The leading such group, the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, lost thousands of members in a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Nevertheless, it has continued to grow and thrive, to the extent that Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were forced to admit in January that the PMOI had played a leading role in planning and carrying out the nationwide demonstrations that were ongoing at the time. The PMOI’s success surely would have been greater, domestically and especially internationally, if not for the vigorous campaign of disinformation that has followed it since it first established itself as the champion of the Iranian resistance.
Tehran’s propaganda against the opposition has been disseminated through scores of ostensibly non-government organizations, the sole objective of which is to discredit the organization and tarnish the image of the resistance, thus making it harder to gain international support and recognition. One such organization, Habilian, portrays itself as representative of Iranians who have lost family members to terrorism, but in reality it represents none other than Iran’s notorious Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The MOIS runs a handful of defectors through Habilian as part of an effort to legitimize the organization’s propaganda.
The popularity of the resistance, alongside Tehran’s preoccupation with stamping it out, should be enough to convince the international community of the movement’s legitimacy and its viability as an alternative to the ruling theocracy.
Habilian has also hosted scores of international conferences, organized dozens of photo exhibitions, published hundreds of books, and produced many television series in a futile attempt to tarnish the image of the Iranian resistance. Similarly, it has tried to influence journalists, opinion leaders, and Iran observers through a steady diet of misinformation disseminated by its surrogates outside Iran.
There have also been reports in the Western media about how Habilian tries to lure journalists, politicians and academics to seminars that are held under misleading titles. Those who prove to be receptive to such outreach from the MOIS are pursued thereafter as potential conduits for the regime’s talking points. Although a bit of digging could reveal where these talking points ultimately came from, the credentials of the foreign assets give those claims a veneer of reliability.
As recently as February, a delegation of the European Parliament was made to listen to a speech by the secretary general of Habilian, Mohammad Javad Hasheminejad, during a visit to Iran. The organization’s own website also reported that, after the general meeting, the secretary general held a private talk with Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes on February 14. The website also proclaimed Gomes had been friendly with representatives of Habilian in the past. The meeting evidently paid dividends for the MOIS, as Gomes seemed to waste no time in criticizing the PMOI after returning to Brussels. In so doing, she noticeably appeared to rehash some of Habilian’s oft-repeated talking points, demanding that the PMOI not be allowed to operate freely and legally in Europe.
Such a demand, of course, runs totally counter to core European values. Not only does it advocate arbitrary restrictions on political speech, it also serves as an attack on those who advocate European-style democracy in the Middle East. Fortunately, it seems that only a handful of Western policymakers adopt these talking points after being approached by Habilian or hearing false claims from it or from related groups. The vast majority see through this transparent propaganda, and worldwide support has been growing over the years for pro-democracy dissident groups. The National Council of Resistance of Iran attracts hundreds of prominent American and European politicians to its annual summer rally outside of Paris, and its base of multi-party support grows year after year.
This trend is sure to continue in the near future, as the world continues to be exposed to news of mass protests and the regime’s brutal response. The popularity of the Iranian resistance, alongside the regime’s preoccupation with stamping it out, should be enough to convince the international community of the movement’s legitimacy and its viability as an alternative to the ruling theocracy.
But history has shown that dictatorial regimes have been able to find certain politicians in democratic countries who have wittingly or unwittingly advocated policies which would benefit the dictators, even if that was not their intention.
Many experts have speculated that Tehran’s violent suppression of the recent uprising and journalists will ultimately cause the uprising to re-emerge.
Meanwhile, it is all but certain that the regime’s efforts to harass, intimidate and discredit the activist movement as well as foreign media outlets will greatly intensify in that time. Journalists, foreign media outlets and dissidents have long been suppressed by the Iranian authorities. But harassment by the Iranian regime has reached an unprecedented level in the last few months.
And there is a simple reason why: The next domestic uprising could be the one that ousts the religious dictatorship and allows the public to achieve their long-sought dream of democracy. With that in mind, the entire world must remain on guard against Iranian propaganda. To speak ill of the Iranian resistance at this historical moment would support the clerical regime in its bid to tighten its hold on the Iranian people.
In light of the brutal crackdown on protesters in recent weeks, as well as the harassment of journalists and media outlets including the British national broadcaster, it should be clear that such an act would be unconscionable for anyone who values democracy and human rights.
*Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh