Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the Executive Director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.
An organized effort to replace the Islamic Republic of Iran’s theocratic dictatorship with a democratic system of government is underway and it is picking up steam.
So why is the mainstream media not paying attention?
More than forty years after the regime’s illiberal rulers came to power following the 1979 revolution, Iran’s domestic population and expatriate community – long the victims of the ayatollahs’ political violence – are demonstrating a laser-like focus on toppling the regime not seen Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed.
And though the mullahs dismiss the rising discontent on the Iranian street as a Western fabrication, it is clear the regime’s leaders are increasingly fixated on a singular pro-democracy group responsible for channeling the voice of the people and spearheading the push for regime change: ThePeople’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI).
The largest and best organized unit in the regime’s parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the PMOI is better known to some in the West by their three-letter acronym, MEK, which stands for Mujahedin-e Khalq.
The target of a fierce decades-long demonization campaign, recent attacks on the group have become particularly venomous and less substantiated. One such claim, that the group lacks capacity to govern due to a lack of popular support inside Iran, is not just unsupported by the evidence, it is designed to undermine the group’s growing support.
In fact, evidence of the MEK’s popularity and organizational strength has become difficult to ignore in recent years. At the end of 2017, the group’s “resistance units” helped to spark nationwide demonstrations against the clerical regime, which continued through much of January 2018. The regime’s longstanding propaganda notwithstanding, even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei failed to articulate credible explanations for the uprising or the explicit calls for regime change as he begrudgingly acknowledged the MEK’s role by indicating the group had “planned for months” to lead protests and had popularized slogans like “death to the dictator.”
The MEK was given every bit as much credit for the next anti-regime uprising, which took place in November 2019, when Iranians again took to the streets – though in greater numbers, with even more demographic diversity, and in more locations across the country – and repeated slogans popularized by the MEK that insisted that neither reformists or hardliners could bring about needed changes.
Since this time, Iranian authorities have begun to sound alarms over the long-term damage the MEK could do to their hold on power, with Khamenei warning in an April speech that future protests could well be dominated by those who “reject the foundations” of the Islamic revolution altogether.
Though regime officials have since struggled to dial back this rhetorical shift in the narrative used to frame their principal opposition, at least where domestic media and intra-governmental communications are concerned, Tehran continues to exercise unusual and insidious influence over foreign media.
Individuals unfamiliar with the regime’s longstanding disinformation campaigns may question whether Tehran-led influence operations exist at all, let alone on scale capable of suppressing public awareness of a viable alternative to the clerical regime.
But among those who have independently arrived at a position of support for the MEK, most have also come to see just how effective Iran has been at influencing foreign media. Severalsuch individuals called attention to this problem a few days ago at the major online conference,Free Iran Global Summit, addressed by NCRI’s president, Maryam Rajavi.
As former US Senator Robert Torricelli put it, the global media apparatus labors under “a shadow of public relations firms, operatives, and companies that are disseminating false information.” Where Iran is concerned, much of that false information has focused squarely on the MEK, repeating the regime’s domestic narratives about a lack of genuine support for the organization. Consequently, most Western governments have spent the better part of four decades setting policy based on the faulty assumptions that the mullahs’ hold on power is irrefutable, and that if they were to be overthrown there would be no alternative to replace them.
It is strange that these false assumptions persist in journalistic circles in the wake of Iran’s repeated uprisings. Then again, that the uprisings themselves have received less attention in Western media outlets than they should is illustrative of the influence Tehran exercises in newsrooms around the globe.
During the November protests alone, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) killed approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters and arrested thousands of others. Several of the arrestees have since been sentenced to death, and others may yet confront the same fate. The extent of the killing hearkens back to the first decade of the Islamic Republic, when the mullahs’ grip on power was still tenuous and the pro-democracy MEK was widely recognized as their greatest rival.
In the summer of 1988, Tehran resolved to stamp out dissent by systematically executing all political prisoners who refused to swear allegiance to the theocratic system. An estimated 30,000 activists and dissidents were killed in a matter of several months.
Most Western media outlets and policymakers proved to be little help, either while the executions were ongoing or in the more than 30 years since. Although the MEK sought to bring attention to the killings at the time, they were dismissed either because Iranian disinformation had already taken hold or because individuals responsible for publishing decisions determined that the story would be too damaging to relations between Western powers and a regime that seemed to be consolidating its domestic control.The legacy of this shameful neglect persists today.
As Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., a former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs and longtime national security advisor, put it during the summit, all news consumers and especially Western policymakers should deem suspect anyone who offers reflexive criticism of the MEK, the NCRI, or any avowedly democratic source of opposition to the mullahs’ regime. Noting that he had personally witnessed such criticism in the days leading up to the summit, Bloomfield declared that “it is the reporters and the analysts whose motives must now be questioned,” not the advocates for a new government in Iran.
The time for a factual narrative on opponents of the ayatollahs has arrived. In fact, it is long past due.