Iran’s propaganda is losing its effectiveness, but the West must remain on guard

Over the years, the “Islamic Republic of Iran” has found frequent success with one key strategy for reinforcing the regime’s hold on power while keeping would-be threats to the theocratic system at bay. The regime’s operatives and lobbyists have tirelessly promoted a narrative that discounts the country’s pro-democratic voices as marginal and lacking in organization or public support. At the same time, they have sought to portray democratic organizations in a negative light, so as to justify the crackdowns that might help to make that false narrative into a reality.

Fortunately for the future of the country, the appeal of the democratic opposition has remained so strong that these crackdowns have proven ineffectual. The standard-bearer of that opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), has lost over 100,000 members since the 1980s as a result of Tehran’s assassinations, torture and execution of political prisoners. In the summer of 1988 alone, 30,000 political prisoners were put to death following a fatwa by the regime’s founder, which declared opponents of the fledgling theocratic system to be enemies of God.

Despite all this, the Iranian opposition has grown both domestically and internationally. On January 9, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acknowledged that that MEK had played a leading role in organizing and initiating the nationwide anti-government protests that were then still at their height. The demonstrations were subsequently dispersed following the shooting deaths of 50 peaceful participants, but not before they spread to more than 140 cities and towns, giving rise to chants of “death to the dictator” and other slogans that clearly expressed a popular desire for regime change.

Many experts on the Middle East have suggested that the January uprising never came to a proper end. On that view, the government repression only put the nationwide movement on pause, while also adding to the grievances that make it so likely to resurge. Public protests have continued almost constantly in spite of the familiar, violent response from the regime.

Although the clerical regime has fallen far short of its goal of destroying the opposition, it has enjoyed complicity from the international community. But that pattern may finally be at an end, leaving Iran without one major component of a strategy that includes propaganda, deception, terrorism, and repression.

The advent of the Trump era certainly has much to do with the shift away from a policy of reaching out to so-called moderates who encourage the destruction of Iran’s pro-democratic voices. But this shift has been a long-time coming, for two main reasons.

First, policies of outreach and appeasement have consistently proven to be disastrous, most recently when the empowerment of “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani led to the explosion of Iranian influence all across the Middle East.

Second, the list of prominent Western politicians and scholars who support the MEK has steadily grown as people have enjoyed more and more exposure to its platform and ideals while also recognizing the dubious origins of disinformation against the opposition.

In 2012, the Pentagon commissioned a report which identified Massoud Khodabandeh and his British wife Anne Singleton as operatives of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security who had by that time spent 10 years presenting themselves as counterterrorism experts while in fact engaging in an aggressive demonization campaign against the opposition.

It goes without saying that the more such tactics are exposed, the less success Tehran will have in suppressing those forces that could organize the democratic sentiment which is predominant both inside Iran and throughout the global Iranian diaspora. This in turn will leave the regime exposed if it attempts to continue with other aspects of its multi-pronged attack against the opposition. 

There are already some signs of that exposure. Last year, two Iranian dissidents were assassinated in Turkey and the Netherlands, and just last month two Iranians were arrested in Albania where they were reportedly suspected of planning terrorist attacks against the large Iranian dissident community there. In recent years, Albania took in the majority of the MEK members who had been living in dire conditions in Camp Liberty in Iraq, under constant threat of attacks from Iranian-backed forces.

In September 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry described the evacuation of Camp Liberty as “a major humanitarian achievement.” To this it might be added that it was also a triumph of global opposition to the Iranian propaganda campaign by individuals like Anne Singleton, which sought to obstruct the relocation and justify leaving the Iranian dissidents to die under rocket attacks, unsanitary conditions and a medical blockade.

But despite that triumph, let no one think that the propaganda element of Tehran’s anti-MEK campaign is at an end. The aforementioned Anne Singleton and several lobbies of the Iranian regime are presently scheduled to address a meeting at the European Parliament, as part of their demonization campaign.

A theocracy that ruthlessly stifles opposition at home and exports its unbridled terror the world over should not be allowed to exploit our democratic system to pursue its sinister objectives, including endangering the safety and security of Iranian exiles.