Why does the U.S. need trolls to make its Iran case?
This weekend, a new wrinkle was added to the ongoing saga about the information war over Iran policy: the stunning revelation that an online persona that was cited by the Trump administration to justify leaving the Iran nuclear deal is likely not a real person, after all.
On Sunday, the Intercept published an investigation into “Heshmat Alavi,” a rabid supporter of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a controversial Iranian opposition group. Since 2014, he had amassed a large Twitter following, which he apparently leveraged to attract interest in freelance submissions.
But according to the Intercept report, it turns out Alavi, the self-proclaimed “Iranian activist with a passion for equal rights” who claims to be “in contact with sources that provide credible information about the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” was a team of MEK members producing the content in Albania.
That didn’t stop Forbes, the Hill, Daily Caller and even the Voice of America from amplifying Alavi’s platform as a voice on Iran policy. All of these outlets, and several more, have published articles by Alavi that claimed the MEK is the main opposition to the current Iranian regime.
More disturbing than the articles, however, were the Twitter tirades that Alavi directed at established journalists who write on Iran — including me — referring to us “lobbyists,” “agents” and “collaborators” of the Islamic republic. These efforts actively sought to undermine our credibility about the best approach to deal with Iran and resorted to personal attacks in order to do so.
Apparently, libel isn’t a concern if you’re not actually a person.
After the report, Twitter appears to have suspended the account.
But the MEK, the organization that “Team Heshmat Alavi” represents, has a nasty history. It was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations for years before being removed in 2012. These days, it has no discernible popular support in Iran and egregiously mistreats its members.
Despite its history and negligible influence among Iranians, the MEK happens to have the support of many U.S. officials, including Trump advisers John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom have appeared as paid speakers at the group’s events.
The new revelations come less than two weeks after reports that the State Department had been funding an initiative called the Iran Disinformation Project, which was outed last month by Iran watchers for targeting and spreading lies about knowledgeable and experienced Iran commentators. The State Department suspended the funding to that initiative temporarily, but a full accounting of how taxpayer money may have been used against U.S. citizens — a crime under U.S. law — has not happened yet.
The Heshmat Alavi saga does not appear to be directly linked with the Iran Disinformation Project. But both operations raise similar concerns.
In both instances, the U.S. government — knowingly or not — aided in the flow of falsehoods perpetuated by opaque sources targeting U.S. citizens and attempting to discredit journalists and other commentators. And in both cases, the administration seemed to care more about advancing their views on Iran than about verifying the truth.
In the current atmosphere, any discussion of Iran that doesn’t explicitly advocate for the most severe measures against Iran — and, by extension, all people inside Iran — is branded apologia by supporters of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The MEK and Iranian Disinformation Project talking points have a captive audience here in the capital. So, too, do the rants of others echoing the most hawkish elements of the Trump administration’s Iran rhetoric.
But this is the United States of America. In this country, at least, we can and must have these conversations in the light of day, and maintain an atmosphere where we can openly debate and defend dissenting views without spreading falsehoods or slander. This is critical, not just for our democracy, but also for long-term peace and stability.
Political commentators have pointed to this rhetorical buildup against Iran as similar to the George W. Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq. But the comparison isn’t entirely apt: We are not at the same informational disadvantage we were as a nation in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
The current Iranian American population is much bigger than the Iraqi American population of the early 2000s. It’s better positioned economically in the society and has more political representation. And crucially, there is a flow of Iranian Americans who still routinely travel to the country. Social media is rich with images from inside Iran telling myriad stories.
So, instead of resorting to false narratives and personal attacks, we should cultivate our Iran policy — because there still isn’t a coherent one — the old-fashioned way: by making real arguments, backing them up with actual evidence and prioritizing real people over the tactics of manipulation and fraud preferred by authoritarians.