The clerical regime has invested greatly on disinformation campaigns and demonizing strategies against the Iranian Resistance and set up an elaborate apparatus to implement it. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the ICCO, the Foreign and Islamic Guidance ministries and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are all involved in psychological warfare against the PMOI.
The clerical regime’s propaganda campaign against its opponents was originally modeled on the activities and modus operandi of the former Soviet KGB’s disinformation department. Foreign instructors who trained Iranian operatives in “psychological warfare” and propaganda techniques in the early 1980s were mainly from the Eastern bloc countries. Many Revolutionary Guards and Intelligence Ministry officers who rose to prominence in the latter half of the 1990s as journalists, editors or politicians, were among the first generation of trainees in these special courses.
Iran’s convoluted propaganda machine conducts complex disinformation operations that may seem incidental or spontaneous to an unsuspecting mind: identical reports appear simultaneously in second- or third-rate European or American tabloids on alleged involvement of the PMOI in the suppression of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites; a few “asylum-seekers” emerge from nowhere to claim that they were mistreated by the PMOI many years ago; state-run newspapers in Iran report that the [former] Iraqi regime is hiding its weapons of mass destruction in PMOI camps.
In the absence of reliable information on how such propaganda is being disseminated by the clerical regime’s agencies, one may rightly assume that both sides to this conflict have vested interests in making these claims and counter-claims. The mullahs’ “target audience” is sometimes affected by the propaganda and most of the times perplexed or confused. Either outcome is a win for the mullahs, for at least some shadow of doubt would be cast on their principal opposition group. Goebbels’ infamous “big lie” principle would seem to work for the mullahs.
The Resistance has responded to this propaganda blitz by relying on its extensive information-gathering network inside Iran to identify the agencies and officials involved in this psychological warfare and expose confidential documents and evidence relating to their activities.
The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), chaired by President Mohammad Khatami, is the highest authority that coordinates this campaign. The council’s secretary, Hojjatol-Islam Hassan Rowhani, is a confidant of ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, while Ali Rabii, a former MOIS deputy and a Khatami protégé, heads the SNSC’s executive secretariat. Supreme Leader Khamenei approves the council’s important decisions.
The mullahs’ extensive propaganda against the PMOI began from the very first day they assumed power. But their “psychological warfare” operations swung into action after the 1991 [Persian] Gulf war against Iraq. In those years, the mullahs tried to take advantage of the post-conflict mayhem in the region to finish off their main opponents, the PMOI. The MOIS sharply expanded its operations to achieve this objective. Tehran pumped up more anti-Mojahedin propaganda, while its hit squads stepped up the assassination of dissidents abroad. From 1990 to 1993, MOIS hit squads targeted prominent opposition figures in Geneva, Rome, Karachi, Istanbul, Paris, Berlin, Dubai, Oslo, Stockholm and Baghdad. At the same time, the MOIS recruited a number of PMOI defectors in Europe to enhance its anti-Mojahedin misinformation campaign.
The MOIS remained very active against Iranian dissidents in Europe throughout the 1990s and was described in successive annual reports by the U.S. State Department on global terrorism as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” in the world. A top Iranian official acknowledged that the MOIS had carried out “hundreds of attacks” on the PMOI in Iraq alone while Saeed Emami was the MOIS deputy minister.
In March 1996, the German Federal Prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for then-Iranian intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian for having ordered the assassination of four Iranian dissidents at the Mykonos, a Greek restaurant in Berlin, on September 17, 1992. In final statements in late November 1996, German prosecutors charged Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and then-Iranian President Rafsanjani with approving the operation. Guilty verdicts for four of the accused were announced in April 1997 and the court established that a Joint Committee for Special Operations made up of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian and Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, was responsible for approving plans to assassinate Iranian dissidents abroad.
Iranian embassies were often the main hub of intelligence and terrorist activities against dissidents abroad. The international security organization, Global Security, reported: “One example of the coordinated efforts of Iranian intelligence is found in Iran’s diplomatic mission in Bonn at Godesberger Allee 133-137, which is the headquarters of the Iranian intelligence services in Europe. Some 20 staff members work for the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and representatives from other agencies also use the embassy’s specially secured third floor, where six offices and a radio room are reserved for the agents. From the six-story building in the government district the services monitor the 100,000 Iranians living in Germany, harass undesirable opposition members, and attempt to procure technology in Germany for the production of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In the German language area alone, there are as many as 100 firms allegedly under Iranian influence for the procurement of such sensitive technology. Other bases of operations include the consulates in Frankfurt and Hamburg, and the Imam-Ali Mosque in Hamburg, said to be the largest Muslim religious centre outside the Islamic world.”
The next major change in the activities of the Iranian intelligence abroad came in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the war in Afghanistan. At the time, the SNSC decided to exploit the new political circumstances and focus its international efforts on the PMOI to persuade other governments, particularly the European Union countries, to designate the PMOI and the National Council of Resistance of Iran as terrorist organizations. Tehran was attempting to kill two birds with one stone: deliver a political blow to the Iranian Resistance and divert global attention from its terrorist record.
As a diplomatic offensive got underway to seek further restrictions on PMOI activities in other countries, the clerical regime embarked on a new misinformation campaign. The MOIS summoned a number of its agents to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Tehran to brief and instruct them to intensify their activities against the PMOI. MOIS agents Karim Haggi, Mohammad-Reza Haggi, Ahmad Shams-Haeri and Mehdi Khoshhal were instructed to pass a series of false reports on the PMOI to police and security services in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.
The clerical regime also increased the number of publications and articles that sought to demonize the PMOI. To this end, the MOIS assembled a group of writers and analysts in Kayhan, the largest government-owned publishing house in Iran, run by Hossein Shariatmadari. Shariatmadari, a brigadier-general of the Revolutionary Guards and a close confidant of Khamenei, is a veteran interrogator, torturer and propagandist who has been a key player in the clerical regime’s disinformation operations since the 1980s.
The MOIS has also sent thousands of anti-Mojahedin letters from Iran to parliamentarians and officials in Europe. The letters, with different signatures but often identical texts and handwriting, accuse the PMOI of terrorism and murder of innocent civilians. They call on recipients to designate the PMOI as terrorist. In an article in Sweden’s daily Göteborg Posten on 19 January 2002, Cecilia Malmström, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, unveiled one example of MOIS schemes to influence parliamentarians.
Islamic Culture and Communications Organization
Parallel agencies involved in the export of terrorism and fundamentalism sustained a number of blows in several countries, prompting the regime to reorganize and consolidate them. In early 1995, Khamenei brought those agencies active in export of fundamentalism and anti-Mojahedin propaganda campaign outside Iran under one unified organization: The Islamic Culture and Communications Organization, ICCO. He appointed Iraqi-born cleric Mohammad Ali Taskhiri as the head of the ICCO. Khamenei himself heads ICCO’s Supreme Policymaking Council, which holds its meetings at his house.
The ICCO has five directorates – publications, communications, cultural logistics, research, administration and financial affairs – each of which has several subordinate departments. Cultural attachés in embassies abroad are linked to the ICCO’s communications directorate.
The ICCO has three sets of objectives:
- Anti-Mojahedin activities, including recruitment of operatives among deserters from the ranks of the Resistance, pursuance of a psychological warfare, employing other opposition figures in anti-Mojahedin actions;
- Penetration of Iranian exile communities abroad through Farsi-language radios and other means, recruitment of agents and encouraging Iranians to return to Iran and infiltrating Iranian associations and groups;
- Exporting fundamentalism to other countries, including recruitment and organization of fundamentalist forces in Islamic nations, penetration of Muslim communities in Western countries for recruitment and incitement purposes, recruitment of Muslims, particularly Shiites, for terrorist hit squads.
During Khatami’s presidency, the ICCO stepped up the scope of its activities. Khatami appointed three cabinet ministers to ICCO’s Supreme Policymaking Council and increased the budget for this entity by 15 percent.
Cultural attachés, who are trained intelligence agents, play an important role in the export of fundamentalism. Often they act as “talent spotters,” reaching out to fundamentalist groups in their countries of assignment and identifying individuals to recruit. New recruits will ultimately be sent to Iran via third countries for ideological indoctrination and terrorist training.