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As Iran Contends With Unrest, the World Must Contend With the Regime’s Disinformation Against the MEK

MEK supporters rally in Brussels- File photo

The Iranian regime is currently facing unprecedented challenges from the Iranian people. The year 2018 began with a nationwide uprising already underway, and its enduring social influence led by the NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi to call that year a “year full of uprisings.” Scattered local demonstrations helped to keep anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator” in popular circulation, and in November 2019 they returned to national prominence with another nationwide uprising, this one even larger than its predecessor.

The Iranian regime responded to that second outpouring of pro-democracy sentiment with a dramatic upsurge in repression. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began firing into crowds with live ammunition, and Amnesty International quickly reported that evidence showed the gunmen were shooting to kill. After several days, an estimated 1,500 peaceful demonstrators lay dead in cities all across the country. Thousands of others were arrested, many of them after being wounded by security forces but before receiving medical treatment. Several detainees have since been sentenced to death, and it is very likely that more will join them as Tehran struggles to maintain control on domestic unrest.

Yet the regime doesn’t appear to be much closer to that goal. In January, while the IRGC’s killings were still fresh in the public’s mind, activists in multiple provinces still responded with organized public protest to news about the regime’s attempt to cover up the missile strike that shot down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran. That missile belonged to the IRGC that had killed 1,500 people less than two months earlier.

This followed by the regime’s awareness of a looming coronavirus outbreak, which has since exposed Tehran’s incompetence and lack of planning in matters of public health.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran has used this crisis to call renewed attention to hundreds of millions of dollars in assets that are under direct control of the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. None of this has been released to help fight a pandemic whose effects on Iran are far worse than any other country of the region, and far worse than the regime itself has reported.

On one hand, that pandemic has helped to prevent the outbreak of further large-scale demonstrations like the January protests. But on the other hand, it has provided the Iranian people with ample incentive to renew their anti-government uprisings at some point in the future. Indeed, that outcome has been explicitly predicted by Iranian officials and hardline Iranian think tanks, who generally recommend that security forces and the IRGC prepare for new clashes with an outraged population.

Among the common threads running through those warnings are references to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) that has long been written off in public by regime authorities, but has remained the leading organized challenge to the theocratic system. It has also been the subject of tireless disinformation and demonization campaigns at the hands of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. As long as domestic unrest in Iran remains on a sort of pause, the international community should anticipate that campaign accelerating as part of a broader effort to prevent Western governments from further undermining the regime’s tenuous grip on power.

This sort of international awareness is especially important in view of the fact that numerous prominent media outlets have fallen for Iranian disinformation over the years, even at times when the regime didn’t have extra incentive to spread lies about the Iranian Resistance. Since the first recent Iranian uprising, there have been two decisions in German court, against two separate publications, demanding the retraction of erroneous claims which could ultimately traced back to the regime’s intelligence operatives.

In a speech he delivered as part of a wide-ranging virtual conference organized by the MEK in July, former US Senator Robert Torricelli declared that the New York Times would have surely faced a similar judgment as Frankfurther Algemeiner Zeitung and Der Spiegel, if not for the fact that US courts “cannot as readily undertake such action.” This, he said, was because even the American newspaper of record is not immune to the “shadow of public relations firms, operatives and companies that are disseminating false information” against the MEK on a global scale.

This network operates in service of two goals that are equally important to the regime’s strategy for maintaining its hold on power. One is to convince the international community that there is no viable alternative to Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. The other is to counter the growth in popular support for the MEK inside Iran.

Toward this latter end, Iranian state media broadcast 332 movies and television series with anti-MEK content in a recent one-year period. And on a single day in July, shortly following the NCRI’s international conference, virtually every state-run publication featured at least one article condemning the opposition. These efforts aren’t likely to have much greater effect than the crackdown on protesters last November, but they lay the groundwork for the regime’s foreign outreach, establishing talking points that can be taken up by other media, which in turn can be cited by ordinarily reputable publications like the Times and Der Spiegel.

It may seem ironic, but international media and Western policymakers can begin to counter the effects of this disinformation by paying more attention to what Iranian officials themselves are saying – not what they are saying in public, for foreign consumption, but what they are saying candidly among themselves. Rudy Giuliani highlighted this in his speech at the virtual NCRI event, noting that over the prior year regime’s supreme leader and its president had admitted on at least six occasions “that the only threat to their regime, the only organization that has any change to put together a government to replace them is NCRI and the [MEK].”

“It’s amazing they would admit that, but they do,” Giuliani said. “It’s equally amazing that the corrupt Western press suppresses that.” But this is perhaps somewhat unfair. It is just as likely that Western media outlets have become unknowingly caught up in an elaborate campaign of disinformation, as opposed to deliberately lying to the world about Iranian affairs. But in either case, the effect is the same. Rather than flourishing in the wake of nationwide uprisings that it has led, the Iranian Resistance is forced to continue its struggle to overcome ill-founded skepticism about the alternative it represents.

But every public statement and action from the MEK and NCRI make it clear what that alternative is: a secular-democratic Iran, founded on principles of equal protection under the law for all people. This is what protesters demanded in 2018 and 2019, and they will do so again in the near future, whether the international community supports them or not.