The Iranian regime routinely spreads false information about its main opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), and lately it has taken up the practice of impersonating them online. As the regime’s disinformation strategies persist and diversify, it is increasingly important for the international community to be on guard and to amplify the voices that counter this disinformation.
The Iranian regime with its various malign activities and continuous misinformation tires to portray that the regime has no viable alternative.
That portrayal has been a key aspect of the regime’s disinformation, and it has been shockingly successful thanks to a global media infrastructure that is often complicit, and a set of Western policies that has frequently tended toward appeasement of Iran’s mullahs.
The very recent case was a court case in Germany. In May, the National Council of Resistance of Iran filed suit against the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung for spreading false claims about the situation in the Albania compound known as Ashraf-3, which houses members of the MEK. In June, a judgment was handed down that affirmed proper journalist standards had been violated and that the FAZ must remove the offending claims from its article.
However, those claims were closely related to allegations that were presented by an article in Der Spiegel a year earlier. These, too, were struck down in a court case, and it was established that the publication would have to pay as much as 250,000 euros for each claim if it repeated them, whether it presented them as facts or as suspicions. But the very existence of the latter case is a sign that the lessons of the first were not learned, and it should give international policymakers pause as they consider how to deal with public claims coming out of the Iranian regime.
Then again, no one who values democracy or freedom should have lent much credence to that regime’s utterances at any point over the past 40 years. Its officials lie as easily as they breathe, and this skill has been put to the test many times, especially in the face of major crises that expose the regime’s vulnerability and its disregard for the welfare of its own people.
The upcoming Free Iran rally, the annual convention of the Iranian Resistance, is another topic that is an issue of concern for the regime and that is why the regime has already started spreading misinformation about the conference. A batch of emails allegedly sent by MEK officials to supporters of the Iranian Resistance have in reality been sent by fake accounts created by the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), a new statement published by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed.
These fake emails were in the name of the MEK and NCRI officials and intended to spread disinformation.
“Regime’s Cyber Unit forged an email purporting to be from Ms. Badri Pour-Tabakh, the Deputy Secretary-General of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/ MEK), and mass emailed messages to members and supporters of MEK to deceive them and gain their trust for later exploitation and information gathering operations,” the NCRI statement read in part, adding: “Ms. Pourtabakh does not use email as a medium in her communications with Resistance supporters.”
Fake accounts, regime’s demonization tactic
The regime’s recent action is not new. Just in the past month, the regime had published many fake news against the MEK.
After renowned Iranian artist and MEK supporter Marjan passed away on June 7, the MOIS published a fake journal, that looked similar to the MEK’s journal, known as “Mojahed,” writing about Marjan’s death along with the pictures of 16 athletes and artists, inside Iran, who had expressed condolences over Marjan’s death. The MOIS has created this fake journal, even though the MEK has stopped publishing a paper journal for years, and all its news and positions are posted online. This action was meant to put pressure on the artists and athletes who simply had sent a message of condolence.
On July 23, 2019 and November 4, 2019, the regime used two fake accounts of so-called “French Diplomats,” to pursue its demonization campaign against the MEK.
On July 23, 2019, simultaneous with the Iranian Resistance’s five-day Free Iran gathering held at Ashraf 3, Albania, which were following large rallies by the MEK supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, in an absolute fake news the mullahs’ regime announced that Pierre Cochard, “a French diplomat resident in Israel”, in a series of tweets, has announced the trip of the NCRI’s President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi to Israel “aimed at meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the Mossad spy agency.”
Reacting to this fake news, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official statement of “the French consulate in Jerusalem” entitled “The fake Twitter account on behalf of the French Consulate in Jerusalem” and rejected this bogus claim. “The Consul General of France in Jerusalem, Mr. Pierre Cochard, has been subjected to an identity theft on the social network Twitter.” The statement added that Mr. Pierre Cochard only communicates on Twitter, as well as other social networks, “through the official accounts of the Consulate General of France in Jerusalem.”
On November 4, 2019, the MOIS released a thread of six more fake tweets, impersonating Alexis Kohler, head of the French presidential office, against the MEK, claiming: “The head of the French presidential office has announced that the MEK will be expelled from France soon.” The Elysée Palace denied the report and said that this was not the position of Elysée, adding that Kohler does not have a Twitter account.
The greater threat to the regime’s power and legitimacy is the looming awareness of a well-organized political opposition that stands ready to step in and establish a transitional government based on democratic principles, just as soon as the Iranian people throw off the mullahs’ rule.
The NCRI has long been prepared to fill that role, though the regime’s fake news, claiming terrorist tactics and abusive practices in Ashraf-3 is to delegitimize this role. This cannot be allowed to stand any longer. Not when those claims have already been ordered retracted on multiple occasions, by multiple outlets. Not when a true account of the NCRI’s plans and operations is on the verge of being broadcast to the world. And not when international recognition of the Iranian Resistance would potentially be more valuable than at any other point in history.
Unrest has become a fairly constant fact of life in Iran. Now, Iranian officials are warning that the worst may be yet to come for them, and that the coronavirus outbreak will ultimately give Iranians still more incentive to condemn their government in its entirety.
This and other worsening crises will, of course, give the regime still more incentive to demonize its opposition and to lie about the prospects for regime change and democratic governance. Tehran will no doubt use every tool at its disposal in order to spread a self-serving narrative. Its outreach to traditional media has paid dividends in the past, but its use of phishing schemes and social media disinformation is growing both in frequency and in sophistication.
The world must be on guard against all of it. And in fact, journalists and policymakers must make it standard practice to avoid false repeating of any claims about the Iranian Resistance that have not been fully vetted. The July 17 teleconference demonstrates that the MEK and NCRI are readily available for media inquiries. There is no need for coverage of those groups to be dominated by innuendo and anonymous sources.