The lie did not hold up for long, and when it fell apart the public lashed out with remarkable fury. But the regime’s reflexively dishonesty was rendered no less significant by its ineffectiveness.
The mullahs have a long history of more successful deceptions. In the 1990s, it succeeded in convincing Western governments to designate the leading Iranian opposition movement as a terrorist organization.
That designation would eventually be removed after court cases in both the US and Europe revealed no evidence for the allegations levied against the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). But the damage was done, and the regime eagerly absorbed the lesson about the potential value of its propaganda.
The January 8 airline disaster is a testament to the fact that deception has become such an ingrained part of the regime’s identity that it will now attempt it even when it’s absolutely clear that the lie won’t hold up over the long term.
The mullahs are presumably not so stupid as to think that Western intelligence agencies wouldn’t detect the signature of the missiles fired at Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, or that no one at all would have filmed the plane erupting into flames before it hit the ground. Yet they still insisted for three whole days that the crash had been the result of a “technical problem.”
It may be tempting to think that Iranian officials are just so egocentric that they can convince the public to accept their lies by sheer force of will. That is one way of interpreting their decision to arrest the person who shared one of the videos that ultimately confirmed the missile strike.
Although that footage helped to compel the regime to admit the truth, the authorities may believe on some level that they can still force an entire population to go along with their fanciful stories, no matter how easily they can be proven untrue.
But it’s also possible that the alleged arrest of the videographer is just a bit of petty revenge, and that the real purpose of the lies regarding the airline disaster was simply to promote a small measure of doubt while buying time to develop a longer-term strategy.
In that case, the strategy came into focus the Friday after the incident, when authorities acknowledged the IRGC’s culpability, and activists in roughly two dozen cities began publicly condemning the authorities.
Those same authorities responded with live ammunition and tear gas, effectively re-enacting the crackdown that they initiated in November after frustration with unexpected gas price increases turned into a nationwide uprising against the clerical regime.
The earlier protests came on with little warning, and the regime had to kill 1,500 people to bring them under control. The January demonstrations were no doubt anticipated, and so they were disrupted much more efficiently.
The earlier protests also brought the Iranian regime much closer to the brink of overthrow. Participants chanted slogans like “death to the dictator” which had previously come to prominence in December 2017, at the start of another mass uprising.
The message of both movements was an explicit endorsement of regime change, and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) was a driving force behind both.
In January 2018, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei admitted that the MEK had planned for months to facilitate nationwide demonstrations and popularize the anti-government slogans.
And in the wake of that begrudging acknowledgment of reality, the nationwide uprising spawned what NCRI President Maryam Rajavi called a “year full of uprisings.” This, in turn, led inexorably to the renewed uprising, and the resulting bloodshed, in November 2019.
A great deal of the past two year’s unrest can be attributed to the regime’s simplest acknowledgment of the truth about an opposition movement, the MEK, that the mullahs have been working for four decades to defame.
This stands in contrast to the lies and deflection that allowed Tehran just enough time to prepare for the unrest in January. And together, the two phenomena show that lies are an essential tactic in the regime’s efforts to maintain its survival, while the truth is a powerful weapon against it.
Khamenei’s mistake in 2018 was acknowledging the truth of his own accord. It’s not a mistake that he’s likely to make again. But the truth or falsity of his public statements doesn’t much matter if there’s no one listening to the lies.
When Flight 752 was shot down, unfortunately, some international media outlets repeated the regime’s claims uncritically, thereby sowing the seeds of doubt and giving it time to prepare its strategy.
Even more, unfortunately, some of those same outlets still repeat the regime’s lies regarding its hold on power and the status of organized opposition. Those lies need not survive over the long term in order to have an impact. It is bad enough that the world listens to Tehran long enough to be deceived.
In the wake of the airline disaster and the ongoing unrest in the Islamic Republic, the international community should know better than to give any credence to the regime’s claims. Doing so only gives it power.
But casting aside Iranian propaganda gives power to the Iranian people and allows them to take action to change their government before the mullahs have time or opportunity to prepare.