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To Better Oppose Iran’s Human Rights Abuses, Counter Its Propaganda Against the MEK

Ashraf-3, home of MEK members in Albania

Recent nationwide uprisings in Iran are clear signs of the clerical regime’s failure to stamp out organized dissent. At the same time, those uprisings can be expected to provide the regime with additional incentives to ramp up its repressive efforts.

Certainly, those efforts will include the arrest, trial, and harsh punishment of pro-democracy activists and other perceived threats to the theocratic system. The international community should resolve to maintain pressure on the regime over such human rights violations. But it should also recognize that not all of that regime’s repressive activities are so blatant or so easy to recognize.

This fact was highlighted by none other than a former director of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Nasser Razavi, in a 2019 handbook titled, Strategy and Nothing Else. When interviewed for that book, Razavi outlined the regime’s strategy for countering the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or MEK, which has long been recognized as the greatest threat to the mullahs hold on power.

“In the 1990s, we had a fundamental revision of the methods and strategies of fighting the MEK,” he said. “We concluded that we cannot destroy the organization by carrying out operations and military strikes… The more they are hit, the stronger and more coherent they become strong. They will recruit more people and their activity will intensify unless we go for psychological operations against them…”

In other words, after the heyday of Iran-backed terrorism in the 80s and 90s, the regime began to lean more heavily upon propaganda and disinformation to suppress dissent. Much of this strategy focused on demonizing the MEK both at home and abroad, in hopes of forestalling the further organization of anti-government activities under the organization’s banner.

IRGC and MOIS try to demonize the Iranian Resistance for fear of youth joining them

This strategic reorientation is evident in the trends that have been observed in the state media broadcasts and publications. Over the course of four decades, state-run publishers produced 526 volumes focused on negative portrayals of the MEK. But whereas the rate of publication averaged 11 books per year from the inception of the regime until 2016, the rate jumped to 19 books per year over the next three years.

State production of films, documentaries, and television series tells an even more elaborate story about the regime’s growing obsession with its longstanding archenemy. While a handful of such works were created in each of the preceding three decades, the production schedule accelerated very dramatically in 2010, so that between then and 2018, a staggering 169 films and shows were broadcast for the sake of demonizing the MEK, some of them multiple times.

Remarkably, this data only covers a period of time ending shortly after the nationwide uprising that took place during much of January 2018. It does not encompass the entire “year full of uprisings” that grew out of that nationwide movement according to National Council of Resistance of Iran President-elect Maryam Rajavi. And it ends well short of the rekindled uprising in November 2019, which was estimated to be roughly 30 percent larger than its predecessor and which also prompted some of the worst examples of blatant repression by regime authorities since before the “fundamental revision” of MOIS methods in the 1990s.

The second uprising spread immediately to about 200 cities and towns, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was just as quick to open fire on demonstrations using live ammunition and shooting to kill. After a period of only several days, the hardline paramilitary force had killed approximately 1,500 peaceful demonstrators. About 12,000 others were arrested and several have since been handed death sentences. More are likely to come, unless the international community compels the regime to believe that it will face substantial consequences for moving ahead with these human rights violations.

One might suppose that this is a far more pressing duty for world powers than any effort to counter Iranian propaganda. And of course, this is true on its surface. But the international community must also bear in mind that support is weakened for the sorts of policies that might prevent Iranian crimes against humanity when the regime’s propaganda is allowed to run rampant.

The growing prevalence of that propaganda is not just a domestic issue. It has a well-established habit of infecting global media narratives, often through networks of “friendly journalists” whom the regime has carefully cultivated over the years. Tehran’s talking points regarding the MEK may even be validated by supposed former members of the organization, though these invariably turn out to be MOIS intelligence assets either posing as exiles from the MEK or acting under duress following threats to themselves or their families.

These tactics of foreign influence have been exposed in a number of court cases, including one that concluded this year and one last year, both in the same German district. In each case, domestic publications were ordered to remove key elements of their articles regarding the MEK compound in Albania known as Ashraf 3, after it was determined that the reporters had not upheld appropriate standards in vetting their sources or the allegations obtained from them.

Unfortunately, such court judgments are not sufficient on their own to prevent the spread of disinformation regarding the dissident group that played leading roles in the 2018 and 2019 uprisings. No doubt, the false information spread beyond the pages of Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Algeimeiner Zeitung before it was retracted. And from there, it most likely served to validate the more misguided Iran policies that have taken hold in the West over the years.

Those policies have overwhelmingly tended toward a conciliatory approach to the clerical regime, based on the false assumption that there is no viable alternative working toward change inside of Iran. This in turn limits the extent of Western governments’ willingness to exert real pressure on the regime, and it certainly prevents them from offering meaningful political support to the MEK, which has long been brushed off as a marginal group and a “cult” by Iranian propagandists.

The recent uprisings present an extraordinary challenge to that propaganda, but it must still be actively uprooted. It is not only possible but absolutely vital for these efforts to go hand-in-hand with criticism of the regime’s recent and pending crackdowns on domestic supporters of the MEK and other advocates for a democratic Iran.