An Iranian activist group, backed by the country’s intelligence service, is trying to enlist American journalists and academics in a propaganda campaign meant to criticize the United States and Israel. I speak from experience, because the group recently tried to recruit me.
On May 23, I was contacted via email by a representative of the “International Congress on 17000 Iranian Terror Victims,” a self-professed nongovernmental organization that is busy planning its second annual conference, to be held in Tehran in August. My interlocutor invited me “to submit your creative and scientific paper and gain opportunity to take part in the conference.”
I’d never heard of this group. But I get a lot of invitations to write papers for organizations and conferences I’ve never heard of. And I was curious what a call for papers from Iran would look like, so I checked out the group’s website, which is slickly produced and almost entirely in English. Among the themes this year’s conference wants to explore are “Zionist State Terrorism against Iran,” “Cyber Terrorism against Iran,” and “Economic Terrorism against Iran in the Light of Sanctions.”
OK, I thought to myself. You must have the wrong Shane Harris. I’m a journalist, not a commentator. The bulk of my writing on Iran has focused on what U.S. intelligence officials say about the the country’s cyber espionage and warfare capabilities. The Iranian government could hardly see my work as flattering. Also, the words “Zionist State” have never appeared under my byline
But then I looked closely at the list of conference sponsors, which includes—among various religious groups, Iran’s only broadcasting company, and a government council run by a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As in the ministry now negotiating with the U.S. over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Also, the head of Iran’s intelligence service spoke at last year’s event.
So a state-sponsored propaganda jamboree propped up by Iranian diplomats and spies wanted me to publicly criticize U.S. foreign policy and maybe even come to Tehran for their anti-West hate fest. In my line of work, we call that a story. Of course I wrote back.
“Thank you for your email. What topics do you think I would be well suited to write about? Did you have a topic in mind that you think I should write about?”
A day later, I heard back from my would-be publisher/host in Iran (who never identified himself or herself by name).
“We heave [sic] three offers for you:
● Examine the us. and Israel campaign to undermine the Iranian nuclear program, including state sponsored assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotage of Iranian nuclear centrifuges.
● Why is there a different us. attitude toward Israel’s substantial nuclear arsenal compared to Iran’s?
● Fueling Iranophobia under the pretext of “Diversion of Iran’s nuclear program to military[.]”
How am I possibly the right guy for this assignment? I thought. Now, I have written, most recently in my second book, about U.S. cyber operations against the Iranian nuclear program. Maybe they wanted me to write a straight article that they could then selectively edit and contort into a screed against the American-Zionist cyber war against the peaceful nuclear program of Iran. But “Iranophobia”? If this was a lure, it was coming on a little strong.
Curious about this supposedly independent organization’s other recruits, I scanned the website for past American contributors. They weren’t hard to find, either on the site or in some of the more colorful corners of the Internet.
There was the Florida Atlantic Unversity professor who questions whether the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School ever happened. The editor of a blog called Truth Jihad who argues that the 9/11 attack was an “inside job” that has been covered up by the media. And a man who ran for president under the white supremacist American Freedom Party, who said in an interview with the conference’s main organizer that Iran had “courageously stood for its own best interests” in the face of “Zionist elements [that] surreptiously [sic] control much of the American landscape.”
This was one of the most ham-fisted attempts at agitprop that I’ve ever seen. “Barking up the wrong tree” doesn’t capture how utterly misguided I thought this invitation was. Nothing in the thousands of articles I’ve written, or my two books, could persuade even a delusional paranoiac that I’d consent to print my words next to the ramblings of wackadoodle conspiracy theorists and inveterate racists.
Of course I wrote back!
In a series of subsequent emails, my contact explained that top papers chosen by the organizers would be published in a book and that “decision-making institutions will have access to it.” If I wanted to attend the conference, “we will strive to facilitate it and provide you funded travel to Iran.” The organizer also offered, in principle, to pay me, but asked me to name my price first. (I didn’t.)
Throughout my exchange, the question of who, exactly, was organizing this event was difficult to nail down. While the conference has the support of high-level government officials and ministries, it’s nominally run by a group called the Habilian Association.
That group is run by family members of people who died in terrorist attacks, notably those that Habilian alleges were committed by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, an exiled Iranian resistance group that wants to see democratic, non-theocratic rule brought to Iran.
“Habilian is a group featuring a few MEK defectors and run by the MOIS,” the acronym for the Iranian intelligence service, Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, told me. “They have previously produced English language booklets (in print) but this is the most professional online English language material I have seen.” Another Iran analyst, who asked me not to identify him, said Habilian has recently sent him several well-designed and expensive-looking books, written in English, that he presumes were paid for by the Iranian government. (Iran’s Fars news agency also publishes a website in English, though the organization describes itself as independent of the government.)
Habilian’s history with the MEK is only part of its story, but it bears some emphasis. The MEK has many enemies in Iran. And experts argue about what degree of popular support it enjoys. But what’s beyond dispute is that Habilian and the MEK have a blood feud. Habilian says the MEK is the terrorist organization responsible for so many of those 17,000 deaths, casualties in its quest to seize power. Habilian also views the MEK as a co-belligerent with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in both countries.
The MEK counters that Habilian is a puppet of the Iranian regime, which “has organized dozens of photo exhibitions, published hundreds of books, and produced many television series in a futile attempt to tarnish the image of the Iranian Resistance,” Ali Safavi, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, under which the MEK sits, told me. “Similarly, it has tried to influence journalists, opinion leaders, and Iran observers through a steady diet of misinformation disseminated by its paid and unpaid surrogates outside Iran.”
The MEK—which until 2012 the United States officially listed as a terrorist organization—stages it own large conference every year, in Paris, which draws a wide range of former U.S. officials, many of whom are paid to give pro-MEK speeches. To Habilian, this probably looks as one-sided and tendentious as its own rants against the Zionist-controlled media and American foreign policy hypocrisy.
But the tit-for-tat between MEK and Habilian doesn’t explain why the latter group has expanded its public efforts beyond a relatively narrow set of grievances. What does criticizing American cyber warfare efforts or Israel’s nuclear weapons program have to do with the MEK and Iranian pro-democracy movements?
The answer may lie in the broader Iranian effort to gin up new types of propaganda and public diplomacy, not all of which are as boisterous and self-indulgent as the Congress on the 17,000 terror victims.
“The [Iranian] system has an affinity for pageantry in the form of conferences and congresses,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told me. “It’s possible that this is just a reflection of an overdeveloped conference-organizing function within the government bureaucracy, but it’s also a testament to the fact many Iranians believe that the world has consistently disregarded their suffering, as during the war with Iraq.”
Habilian’s conference is certainly not the first polemical pageant to condemn Israel and the West. The “New Horizon” conference has brought together 9/11 truthers and Holocaust deniers to discuss “the untrustworthiness” of the U.S. and its four European allies as negotiating partners over Iran’s nuclear program, “as well as their hypocrisy, and lack of sincerity” and “Israel’s role in originating this manufactured crisis.” Last year’s event drew anti-Semites who claimed the Holocaust never happened, and it even attracted one American journalist, Gareth Porter, who later told BuzzFeed News he’d been snookered into attending the event by conference organizers who misled him about the kinds of characters it attracts.
Iran has also sought to turn what it sees as anti-Muslim rhetoric against those who wield it. Following the attacks on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, and the magazine’s subsequent decision to draw Muhammad weeping on its next cover, two government-sponsored arts organizations in Iran announced an editorial cartoon contest based on the theme of Holocaust denial. It was actually the second such competition—the first was held in 2006, after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a depiction of Muhammad. Contest entries portrayed the Holocaust both as a fiction and as an event that, even if it were true, pales in comparison to the atrocities Israel has committed against Palestinians.
But contrast these decidedly unsubtle attempts at public debate with the use of social media by Iran’s leaders. President Hassan Rouhani’s Twitter account is filled not with anti-Jewish diatribes and truther pablum but with images of him receiving foreign ambassadors, reports on meetings with other world leaders, and retweets of his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who tweets optimistically about negotiations with his Ameican counterparts, not their alleged efforts to undermine his country with a manufactured crisis. Zarif isn’t trying to dupe American journalists and thinkers into writing pro-Iran propaganda. He’s sitting down with them to discuss the future of global power.
And yet Zarif and his colleagues in the Iranian leadership are throwing their weight behind a conference that is so hopelessly biased it can be instantly discredited by the very people it seems meant to reach.
Iran experts and former U.S. intelligence officials I talked to said it was difficult to know for sure what the Congress on the 17,000’s goal really is. I had initially suspected that maybe the conference invitation was an elaborate ruse to get me to travel to Iran, where intelligence officials would seek to recruit me. Two former U.S. intelligence officials told me that recruiting journalists, especially under the guise of some kind of conference or event, was an old trick straight out of the spy handbook, deployed by the Russians and even Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
But this conference’s strategy seemed more of a piece with a propaganda campaign that has already managed to enlist some very outspoken Americans willing to criticize their own government—however bizarre I may think those criticisms are.
“This would appear to be an attempt to take the discourse around terrorism, which since 1979 has been used as a political and rhetorical instrument against the Islamic Republic, and rearticulate it in a way in which Iran is a victim rather than a perpetrator of terrorism,” Farzan Sabet, an Iran analyst and visiting fellow at Georgetown University, told me.
“Given that the Islamic State’s violence has caught the world’s attention, many in Iran (and their supporters in D.C.) see this as an opportunity to recast Iran as a partner against terrorism rather than a foe,” Sabet said.
If that’s true, Iran really needs to up its game. But there are signs it’s trying. Last month, one of the state-sponsored groups that put on the Holocaust denial cartoon contest announced a new competition, this time to mock the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS. It’s an old tactic—with a crude pedigree—but this time with a new target, one the U.S. hates as much as Iran.
As inartful and chest-thumping as the Congress on the 17,000 seems, it’s not the only play Iran is running. Maybe the propagandists in Tehran aren’t so clumsy after all. Somewhere on the spectrum of racist rallies and diplomatic Twitter accounts, they might just find a message that works.
But to the interlocutor who thought it was worth the time to try to recruit me, I have to ask: Seriously?!