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The Iranian Regime Is Losing a Propaganda War on at Least Two Fronts

Ali Khmenei and Hassan Rouhani

Iranian regime’s propaganda has been losing steam for years. Efforts to downplay the coronavirus outbreak have only accelerated that process. There is an ever-widening gulf between the official infection rates and fatality figures on one hand, and independent assessments of the situation on the other. This, of course, means that it is increasingly difficult to sell the regime’s official narrative to the public since doing so requires them to deny the evidence of their own eyes and ears. 

According to the regime’s statistics, There have been over 7,000 deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the latest estimates from the National Council of Resistance of Iran suggest that the true death toll now exceeds 43,800. This is supported by the past three months reports from independent Iranian journalists and Iranian medical professionals. Many have risked arrest and harsh prison sentences in order to share information that is wildly out-of-step with the self-aggrandizing image presented to the public by Iranian officials and state media outlets. 

While the official death toll is certainly nothing to thumb one’s nose at, it is further mitigated by the clerical regime’s efforts to compare it favorably to the conditions in Western democracies. President Hassan Rouhani has explicitly stated that Tehran’s response to the pandemic was better than that of Washington and a number of European capitals. He has also stated that Iranian hospitals have no shortage of empty ICU beds, while other officials boast that the Islamic Republic is now in a position to sell its medical resources to foreign markets, since they are not needed at home. 

But even the latest state media broadcasts do not support such claims. On Thursday, Health Ministry officials admitted that upwards of 10,000 staff in Iranian medical facilities have contracted the coronavirus so far. Of these, 100 reported died before the end of April, and there is no telling how many more have already joined them in the first three weeks of May. Additionally, if the regime’s claims about healthcare workers are anything like its claims about the general population, then both the infection rates and the death toll are surely much higher than have been acknowledged. 

Contrary to Rouhani’s prior statements, the outbreak’s impact on Iran’s healthcare industry is much more pronounced than in other hard-hit nations, especially when viewed in proportion to the total population. It should go without saying that the number of infections among doctors and nurses is a testament to Iran’s failure to provide them with personal protective equipment and other resources needed to manage the crisis effectively. This makes it especially shocking that the regime’s authorities dragged their feet on opening the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, then explicitly rejected offers of medical aid from the US and Doctors Without Borders. 

The Iranian regime might once have been able to justify those move to some people, particularly those who live outside of affected population centers or have limited access to independently sourced information. But as more and more citizens become aware of certain officials’ acknowledgment of sickness and death among medical professionals, it will become increasingly difficult for the regime’s authorities to keep a lid on the outrage that will inevitably follow. 

To their credit, many regime officials and state political analysts are evidently aware of the backlash they are facing from the general population. The Asra think tank issued a report in March that warned of how the public’s trust in state media was already nearing its bottom before the coronavirus even breached the nation’s borders. It pointed to the downing of Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 was a particular low-point, as the regime’s efforts to cover up the Revolutionary Guard’s responsibility was exposed after only days, leading to mass protests in mid-January. 

Those protests were all the more remarkable because they came just two months after a nationwide uprising, sparked by increases in the price of gasoline, which met with brutal repression and left 1,500 activists dead. The public response to the Flight 752 incident showed not only that the people were deeply upset by disinformation campaigns, but also that their antipathy toward the regime was sufficient to overcome very valid fears of death at the hands of repressive authorities. 

This situation has seemingly been made possible by rising levels of organization in the Iranian protest movement. Whereas a nationwide uprising might have seemed all but impossible several years ago, now there have been two in as many years, with other protests spanning several provinces during the same period. Last November’s uprising was preceded in January 2018 by a series of protests that spanned 150 Iranian cities and towns while bringing anti-government slogans into the mainstream. 

Calls for “death to the dictator” have been a common feature of public protests ever since, and this fact has noticeably spooked none other than the dictator himself, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a video conference with the Basij militia posing as students on Saturday, Iran’s ultimate clerical authority implored them to take control of university protests for the sake of concealing the increasingly popular anti-government sentiment from the view of foreign policymakers. 

“Do not allow your protests to be viewed as protests against the Islamic system; the enemy is waiting for this,” Khamenei said before acknowledging the futility of trying to halt protests altogether. “It would be good if you be at the forefront of demands,” he added because if the shrinking population of hardliners failed to redirect the public’s energies, that role would be taken up by “those who do not accept the foundations of the revolution.” 

It is precisely these sorts of pro-democracy leaders that made the 2018 and 2019 uprisings possible, as Khamenei acknowledged at the time. He reiterated that point in his Saturday remarks, specifically highlighting the growth in organizational strength of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the main and most effective source of opposition to the clerical regime. 

Just a few years ago, such public reference to the MEK would have been unheard of. The mere mention of the group had been a strongly-enforced taboo among regime authorities. But its prominence and leading role in recent protests have been quite impossible to ignore. As a result, it is now as difficult for the mullahs’ regime to ignore its domestic political challenges as it is to ignore the ravages of Covid-19. In both these areas, and in others besides, the regime’s propaganda is faltering. 

Warnings from the likes of the Asra think tank underscore the fact that Khamenei faction recognizes much overlap between these separate issues. The regime’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic is sure to spark additional protests once it is safe for Iranians to return to the streets in large numbers. And apart from violent repression, the regime has no strategy for dealing with these other than to promote disinformation about their motives, organization, and significance. But if the ongoing coronavirus disinformation campaign fails, the regime’s false narratives about the Iranian Resistance are sure to follow suit is it has happened, with more youth being attracted to the MEK. 

It is in the best interests of the Iranian people, as well as international security if Western policymakers make an effort to accelerate this outcome by rejecting and countering obvious Iranian regime’s propaganda, and by helping to keep the lines of communication open among Iranian civilians and the outside world.