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Disinformation Holds Western Powers Back from Realistic Iran Strategy

Disinformation Holds Western Powers Back from Realistic Iran Strategy
Disinformation Holds Western Powers Back from Realistic Iran Strategy

On July 19, the US diplomat and national security advisor Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr. participated in an international video conference on Iranian affairs and policy recommendations for dealing with the Iranian regime. In his speech to the event organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Bloomfield presented an overview of the regime’s strategy for maintaining its hold on power.

“Why are they seeking to discredit the NCRI and the MEK?” he asked in reference to the leading coalition of Iranian Resistance and its main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). “Why did they rush to defend Bashar Assad’s regime in 2011 against the Syrian people? Why did they enter a long negotiation with Europe and the United States and the P5+1 to try to talk about nuclear weapons? To keep the U.S. and Europe from acting against the regime. The reason is always the same, the same reason, to keep a weak, illegitimate regime in power.”

Bloomfield was joined by dozens of other speakers, including fellow Americans with backgrounds in government and foreign policy, as well as similar representatives of countries spanning the entire globe. Virtually all of them expressed a similar understanding of the regime’s survival strategy and the inadequate response that has been offered by major world powers in recent years. Criticism of Western dealings with the regime also came from Iranian expatriates and survivors of the regime’s repression, who tend to view the political status quo as involving dismissal of their plight.

There is a shockingly long history of these sorts of grievances. Although the international community has variously condemned the Iranian regime for its track record of human rights violations, they have also turned their back on some of the regime’s worst crimes, at times when political intervention might have saved hundreds or even thousands of lives.

In the summer of 1988, the Iranian regime established “death commissions” to interrogate political prisoners all across the country. Activists for the MEK quickly recognized what was happening, and that they were primed to be the main targets of the crackdown. But after reaching out to Western policymakers and media outlets, they observed the response to be deafening silence. In fact, the whole time that political prisoners were being hauled from their cells, asked to disavow their ideals, and summarily hanged when they failed to do so, some voices in the West were still championing the prospect of “moderation” within the ranks of the Iranian regime.

The 1988 massacre killed an estimated 30,000 innocent men, women, and children. Added to all the other instances of politically motivated killings spanning roughly 40 years, the MEK has reportedly lost 120,000 members to its rivalry with the theocratic dictatorship. In a just world, so great a death toll would be recognized throughout the world, especially by governments and policymakers who consider themselves to be defenders of universal human rights principles.

In the real world, the plight of the MEK has been almost entirely overlooked by governments that should view the organization as a natural ally in the fight against terrorism, tyranny, and extremism. Over four decades, Western policymakers have effectively constructed a strange alternate reality in which the Iranian regime’s own moderates are the enemies of the regime they serve, and the MEK barely exists at all.

The Western leaders didn’t establish this narrative on their own. They had a great deal of help from disinformation that originated with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Bloomfield highlighted this phenomenon when he referred to the regime’s efforts to “discredit the NCRI and the MEK.” Former Senator Robert Torricelli, a fellow participant in the Free Iran Global Summit, noted that these efforts are being channeled through a global network of “public relations firms, operatives, and companies” that serve the regime’s interests and convince Western media outlets to cite information that is “patently false” and “directly from Tehran.”

As an example, Torricelli cited an article that appeared last year in Der Spiegel, which purported to expose abusive behavior at the MEK’s compound in Albania known as Ashraf 3. The former Senator specifically referred to the publication’s “humiliation” at having to remove passages from the online archive of that article after the content was challenged in court and found to be lacking in merit. Sources for the relevant sections can ultimately be traced back to Iranian intelligence, as can sources for similar passages in a variety of articles that have appeared in the world press over the years, not all of which have been exposed in court.

Remarks by Robert Toricelli, to the Free Iran Global Summit – July 17, 2020

Legal challenges from the MEK and the NCRI are sure to continue, as they should. But the international community cannot rely on the success of these challenges in order to root out a disinformation campaign that, according US Ambassador Adam Ereli’s speech to the July summit, has cost Tehran tremendous sums of both money and operational resources. Instead, reporters, policymakers, and intelligence operatives must be eternally vigilant about vetting the “information” that is shared with them about the MEK. Realistically, only a small portion of it, if any at all, is shared without malicious intent.

In order to train themselves to recognize Tehran’s disinformation, it is vital for prominent individuals in Europe and America to recognize that they have been manipulated incessantly by Tehran over four decades. By sowing the seeds of doubt regarding the MEK, Iranian intelligence operatives have nudged Western policymakers, over and over again, toward the belief that there is no viable or preferable alternative to the existing regime. As a result, those same policymakers have generally defaulted to the promotion of “moderate” regime officials, even when those moderates join their hardline colleagues in supporting crimes like the 1988 massacre.

For many supporters of the NCRI, this comes across as bitterly ironic, because it shows that the persons responsible for challenging Tehran on the world stage are looking straight past the clearest evidence that it is ripe for such challenge. After listing a number of talking points that the regime has long used to claim the Resistance is weak and lacking in domestic support, Adam Ereli addressed the MEK directly and said, “The fact that they’re saying this indicates to me that the opposite is true.”

“The greatest testimony to your effectiveness” said Ereli, “is the fact that the Iranian regime hates you so much and will stop at nothing to destroy you.” Other participants in the Free Iran Global Summit generally agreed that this obsession has only grown in recent years, as the MEK has taken its place at the head of two nationwide uprisings in as many years.

Those uprisings strongly underscore the “weakness” and “vulnerability” that Lincoln Bloomfield alluded to in his account of Tehran’s scheme for clinging to power. Yet even as domestic unrest amplifies that vulnerability, the regime is still enjoying some success in convincing the US and Europe not to act against it, much less in support of the Iranian Resistance. This situation will continue for as long as those Western powers remain susceptible to disinformation about the MEK. But as soon as they overcome that disinformation, the regime will quickly find itself on the brink of regime change at the hands of Iranian people.