Since failing to destroy the democratic opposition with a massacre of political prisoners in 1988, and executions and attacks afterwards, Iran’s regime has been working tirelessly to delegitimize the Resistance movement in the eyes of the world. These efforts include a steady outpouring of fake news by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence which targets the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). But that domestic propaganda is only effective in promoting the regime’s broader objectives because it routinely seeps into global media, thereby muddying international perspectives regarding the prospect for regime change and democratic governance in Iran.
This is where the Iran Lobbies in the West get involved. They easily disseminate the talking points of the clerical regime against the MEK, with the posture of Iran experts or journalists, in the main stream and social media. The source of the news or analysis, the lobbyist, might look legitimate, but by digging deeper and spotting their talking points it becomes apparent that behind the tie and Western look of the “Iran expert” or the “journalist” you can see the turban of the mullahs. One common label that they use and repeat again and again against the MEK is regime’s narrative that describes the MEK as a cult.
Since the end of 2017, Iran has been rocked by two nationwide anti-government uprisings and countless smaller-scale protests. No less an authority than the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged in a January 2018 speech that the MEK had played a leading role in organizing and facilitating hundreds of ongoing demonstrations. This alone should have spelled doom for the regime’s longstanding narrative that described the MEK as a “cult” and an ineffectual “grouplet.”
The apparent problem is simply that Iranian propaganda has been too deeply ingrained in Western media for too long. The MEK and its various Western supporters have worked to root out that influence by routinely exposing the regime’s “network of friendly journalists” and the Iranian intelligence assets who present themselves in the guise of Middle Eastern strategy or Iran experts and former members of the MEK.
In March 2019 and again in July 2020, a German court handed down judgements upholding challenges that the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), had brought against two publications, Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung. Both trials established that Iranian propaganda still maintained strong influence over Western media, as suspected Iranian intelligence assets were being quoted uncritically in articles that seemed committed to portraying the MEK as a cult.
The sheer falsity of those reports is reason enough to be shocked at the lapse in journalistic standards. But this is made much worse by the fact the ongoing dissemination of anti-MEK talking points is tremendously beneficial to the clerical regime. This has always been the case, but the benefit is especially pronounced in the wake of the two recent uprisings. Those nationwide demonstrations have brought the regime as close to overthrow as it has ever been, and it is reasonable to conclude that international recognition of the MEK’s legitimacy could tip the scales the rest of the way in that direction.
This is exactly what Iranian propaganda and the “cult” label are intended to prevent. By suggesting, regardless of the uprisings, that the MEK has little genuine support inside Iran, the regime hopes to convince its Western adversaries that there is no viable alternative to the theocratic dictatorship, and that an assertive shift in their foreign policies would be futile.
The result has been conciliation and appeasement in the face of some of Tehran’s worst activities. Although the entire world called for the regime to spare the life of popular wrestling champion and political activist Navid Afkari last month, no Western power took meaningful action to hold the regime accountable when it nevertheless executed him on September 12. Two years earlier, European authorities disrupted an Iranian terror plot that would have seen a bomb detonated at an NCRI rally near Paris. But despite the confirmed involvement of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, no serious long-term consequences resulted – no significant increase in sanctions, much less closure of the embassies through which such terror plots are organized.
It is sufficiently shocking to think that the nations of Europe would resign themselves to Iran’s crackdowns on its own people. It is even more shocking that they would look the other way on threats to Western nationals. Dozens of high-profile dignitaries from both Europe and the United States were present at the June 2018 NCRI rally, and some would have surely been among the casualties if the terror plot had been successfully implemented.
Europe’s permissiveness demonstrates the power of Iran’s propaganda under the context of the appeasement policy. It has convinced much of the world to tolerate the intolerable. And this in turn is a sign of the failures exhibited by the global media, which has the power to challenge that toleration and to reveal the alternatives to a Western policy of appeasement.
Over the long term, Iran’s intelligence assets will reveal themselves by attempting to push those same talking points over and over, especially when stymied by a careful assessment of the facts. Any reporter who hears their sources describe the MEK as a “cult” should keep careful watch over those sources from then on. While it is possible that they have simply been misled in the same way as have so many Western policymakers, it is just as likely that they are actively working on behalf of the Iranian regime to preserve the familiar lies it has come to rely upon in order to preserve its hold on power.