In the one-year period between the summer of 2015 and the summer of 2016, Iranian state media produced more than 300 movies and television series to demonize the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). Throughout 2016, the Iranian regime also published 14 different books condemning and defaming the MEK. To this day, Tehran publishes a monthly magazine and maintains at least 13 websites dedicated to the topic, to say nothing of the countless sock puppet accounts on social media that have contributed to the disinformation campaign in recent years.
The MEK has been recognized as the clerical regime’s arch-enemy and the single greatest challenge to its hold on power since the early days of the regime in Iran. In 1981, MEK led the first major protest march against that regime. Tehran promptly responded with live ammunition and beatings, killing hundreds on the spot. When this failed to quell dissent, the regime began plotting targeted crackdowns on the MEK specifically. This culminated in the summer of 1988 with the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, the vast majority of which were acknowledged MEK members and sympathizers.
Yet even the 1988 massacre failed to stamp out public support for the most firmly-established and organized pro-democracy group. Instead, that support largely moved underground, but continued to grow. Assassinations of MEK activists continued into the 90s, often taking place very far beyond Iran’s borders. But as the group continued to demonstrate its resilience, Iran’s strategy for countering pro-democracy sentiment began to lean more heavily upon the disinformation campaign that would eventually come to look like a broadcasting and publishing empire.
Much of that campaign aims to diminish domestic support for the MEK, or at least to keep that support underground. But this goal seemed to fail at the end of 2017 when Iran was gripped by a nationwide uprising that popularized slogans like “down with the dictator” and seemed to express a strong current of popular support for regime change. As that uprising continued into January 2018, regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech in which he acknowledged the MEK as the source of those slogans and a driving force behind the protest movement.
This was a remarkable development in that it challenged the very propaganda that Khamenei’s own regime had been pushing about the MEK for the previous 30 years. Since the 1988 massacre, Tehran had been acting as if the killings had succeeded in dismantling the organization. When government officials or state media referenced the MEK in public, they only referred to it as a “cult” or a “grouplet,” suggesting an almost complete lack of support or organizational strength. This was plainly inconsistent with its role in leading a nationwide movement at the beginning of 2018.
Inside Iran, this aspect of the regime’s propaganda has yet to recover, and there’s reason to believe that it never will. Then again, with so many protesters expressing support for the MEK across so many different localities, there’s good reason to believe that that propaganda never took hold in the first place. It would be easy to thus conclude that the hundreds of billions of dollars of expenditures on the disinformation campaign were entirely wasted, if not for the fact that Iranian propaganda about the MEK has actually gained a firm foothold outside of Iran, and specifically in Western media.
That propaganda is, of course, being aggressively challenged. In 2019 and 2020, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, won court cases in Germany over defamatory claims that had been published in Der Spiegel and Frankfurther Algemeiner Zeitung. But in the meantime, the content of the offending articles was consumed by untold numbers of readers, including other journalists who took it for granted and repeated it elsewhere, sometimes in places where it is more difficult to root out spurious claims and careless speculation.
In a speech he delivered in July as part of the NCRI’s “Free Iran Global Summit,” former US Senator Robert Torricelli highlighted the court orders for the two German publications to remove information sourced “directly from Tehran,” and he said, “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.”
Of course, the courts shouldn’t have to. A publication as renowned as the New York Times should be above publishing assertions from “former members” of a political group who have been shown to have ties with that group’s enemies. Yet that is exactly what the Times and other similarly professional outlets have done in recent years. They have repeatedly failed to reach out to the MEK itself, to give it an opportunity to refute false claims or prove that the sources for defamatory articles either were never members of the group or were forced out after they came under suspicion for ties to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.
The failure to adequate vet these sources is perplexing in light of the conditions inside Iran today. With two nationwide uprisings in recent memory and another very likely looming on the horizon, the Iranian regime has tremendous incentive to step up its disinformation campaign against Resistance activists both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, hundreds of recent broadcasts and publications by Iranian state media demonstrate that the regime clearly has the media infrastructure to pursue that campaign on a grand scale.
Torricelli described this situation in his speech to the NCRI, noting that state media talking points are spread “across the globe” by a “shadow of public relations firms, operatives, and companies that are disseminating false information.” Other speakers at that event agreed that this network of regime apologists presents a major challenge to Western journalists and policymakers, but also that it is a challenge that needs to be overcome, now more than ever.
Each country’s success or failure in rooting out Iranian disinformation could determine whether or not that country stands on the right side of history the next time Iranians rise up, led by the MEK, and demand fulfillment of that organization’s longstanding promise of democracy and freedom for all.