In the past two years, at least two major publications have been admonished by courts for spreading false information about the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). In March 2019, and again in June 2020, a German court handed down sentences which threatened financial penalties of up to 250,000 Euros each unless Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung removed a number of allegations from their articles on the MEK and its recently-completed headquarters in Albania, known as Ashraf 3.
Looking back on four decades of conflict between the MEK and the Iranian regime, it is easy to see that the two German court cases fit into a larger pattern involving the dissemination and then retraction of spurious claims about the Resistance movement. It is also fairly easy to see that that disinformation typically originates with the Iranian regime itself, as agents of the Intelligence Ministry pursue a complex demonization campaign aimed at preserving the status quo in Iran’s relations with foreign adversaries.
The most recent court challenges to Western media reports suggest that this demonization campaign is currently accelerating. And this is exactly what one might expect at a time when the regime is facing unparalleled challenges not only from those foreign adversaries but also from its own people. The United States has been pursuing a strategy of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime since around the time the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. But Iranians have been rising up against the regime since even earlier, and Tehran is surely terrified by the prospect of these two trends falling into sync and amplifying each other.
In December 2017, economic protests in the city of Mashhad began to spread throughout the entire Iran while taking on a broader message, not limited to complaints over poverty and unemployment. By mid-January 2018, residents of roughly 150 Iranian cities and towns were explicitly blaming these and other problems on the very nature of the theocratic regime and calling for its overthrow. Participants in the mass uprising repeated slogans like “death to the dictator” for weeks, eventually prompting the dictator himself, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to acknowledge that the MEK was playing a major role in the protest movement.
That role persisted through what the NCRI’s president, Maryam Rajavi, called a “year full of uprisings.” And it reemerged in November 2019 with another nationwide uprising that proved to be even larger and more geographically and demographically diverse than its predecessor. In a matter of only days, the second uprising spread to about 200 localities. And during the same period, Iranian security forces responded to the unrest with a vicious force, killing an estimated 1,500 participants and putting thousands of others under arrest.
The killings presented a significant challenge to the MEK’s domestic “resistance units,” but not the greatest such challenge they have ever faced. That came in the summer of 1988, when “death commissions” all across Iran began interrogating political prisoners and passing capital sentences for known or suspected affiliates of groups like the MEK. Over the course of just several months, 30,000 people were killed in this fashion, as part of a transparent attempt to stamp out all organized opposition to the mullahs’ regime.
But that project failed and the MEK came back stronger than ever, to stand at the head of a coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran. To the extent that the crackdown on the November uprising was also part of an effort to stamp out dissent, it too has failed. Despite growing public awareness of the regime’s backlash, protests broke out across several provinces last January, and then in July the NCRI held its annual event to promote regime change in Iran, which saw participation from over 100 countries including Iran itself.
Having shifted from largely in-person to largely online, the Free Iran Global Summit featured speeches delivered over Zoom from a number of political dignitaries, many of whom joined in emphasizing the progress that resistance units have made toward overthrowing the existing regime, as well as the likely short-term consequences of that progress. These consequences certainly include further violent repression of Iran’s domestic population. But NCRI supporters like US diplomats Lincoln Bloomfield and Adam Ereli noted that the prospective acceleration of Iran’s disinformation campaign might have a more immediate impact on Western policies.
Addressing the MEK directly, Ereli said in the late-July summit, “You’ve had, I think, some very important successes in disrupting the Iranian regime’s terrorist activities. And that’s why… not only have they tried to destroy you in Iran, they’ve also tried to discredit and demonize you outside of Iran.” The ambassador went on to say that the depth of commitment and breadth of tactics involved in that demonization campaign are only further proof that the Iranian regime sees the MEK as a real threat, with wide-ranging support inside Iranian society. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be spending all this money and effort to present a false narrative.”
.@erelija: Iran’s regime has a sophisticated and coordinated plan to spread terror and violence and destabilization in the region. #MEK has been exposing this conspiracy of terror over many years. #ExpelIranDiplomatTerrorists #FreeIran2020 https://t.co/Jiy2ZBgkVa
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) July 23, 2020
This is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of what Tehran has attempted to claim about the MEK. The Intelligence Ministry has instead portrayed the organization as some sort of cult, or a “grouplet” with little chance of driving the mullahs out of power. However, that narrative has been seriously undermined by the recent uprisings, which were in turn made all the more possible by recent signs of a breakdown of the status quo in Iranian-Western relations. Since the beginning of 2018, even Iranian officials like Supreme Leader Khamenei have been warning that MEK influence is growing, and that the group is now in a position to control the messaging as further protests flare up in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak.
Sadly, though, Iranian propaganda about the MEK seems to be breaking down more quickly in Tehran than in Western media. The careless publication of disinformation in Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Allgemeine was a sure sign of this. And those publications are not alone, as some participants in the Free Iran summit pointed out. Robert Torricelli, a former US Senator from the State of New Jersey, for instance, said of the German court rulings, “I’m embarrassed to tell you the same would have happened with the New York Times, but for the fact that our laws and constitution are different, and the courts cannot as readily undertake such action.”
That being the case, it is going to be up to journalists and publishers in America and other Western nations to push back against Iranian disinformation whenever their reporting touches upon the MEK. This is to say, the sources of that disinformation are manifold and are rarely accompanied by flashing neon signs that identify an individual or group as an Iranian intelligence asset. “There are across the globe a shadow of public relations firms, operatives and companies that are disseminating false information,” Torricelli said. And Tehran has spent many years cultivating an air of authenticity around many of them.
But this cannot compete with the markers of authenticity that were on display in two nationwide uprisings in support of the MEK’s vision for a free and democratic Iran. By reporting more carefully about the organization, Western media can help to share that vision with the entire world and especially with the policymakers whose job it is to decide whether there is a viable and desirable alternative to Iran’s current theocratic regime.