The comparison of these two Middle Eastern adversaries is particularly timely in the wake of the apparent assassination of reformist reporter Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi intelligence agents.
Until recently, Iranian officials had reportedly stayed mostly silent about the killing, but they have lately seized upon the opportunity to condemn Saudi Arabia, presumably fearing that international pressure on the Saudis might begin to taper off.
But as the Washington Post article underscores, Iran is in no position to direct outrage against its adversaries without opening itself to credible allegations of hypocrisy.
“Theoretically,” Rezaian wrote, “the Saudis’ blunder could give Iran a rare opportunity to improve its international standing by correcting its abysmal record on free expression.”
But he went on to say that the latest information suggests “that Iran is determined to continue its tradition of silencing reporters on the flimsiest charges” and thus to remain “a leader in the ugly industry of silencing journalists within and beyond its borders.”
Among the latest accounts of repression to come out of the Islamic Republic is the story of Pouyan Khoshhal, whom Rezaian described as having been arrested on the basis of a single word in a published about Tuesday’s Arbaeen pilgrimage.
Khoshhal reported referred to Imam Hussein as having “passed away” rather than using the word “martyred” as is customary in government approved communications. In this way, Khoshhal simultaneously represents the Iranian regime’s ongoing – and allegedly escalating – repression of the press and its repression of any perceived threats to the government-enforced cultural and religious views of the Islamic Republic.
The notion of escalating repression was certainly underscored by the Washington Post article, which pointed not only to the frequent arrests and prosecutions of pro-reform journalists but also to Tehran’s efforts to expand its repressive measures beyond the country’s borders. These efforts include the economic blacklist of approximately 150 employees of and contributors to the BBC’s Persian service, as well as cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and even terrorist plots directed at foreign-based individuals and groups.
One day ahead of the Washington Post report, the Huffington Post provided details about Iran’s online disinformation campaigns when it reported that Facebook had identified 82 separate pages, groups, and accounts that had been portraying themselves as Americans despite being based in the Islamic Republic. These pages reportedly acquired more than one million followers before being taken down as part of Facebook’s efforts to counter instances of misrepresentation on the platform following the revelation of Russian attempts to intervene in the 2016 US presidential election.
Although the spotlight has been focused on Russia for much of this time, there is growing evidence that Iran has been developing a highly coordinated campaign of a similar type. The latest Facebook purge also identified thousands of Instagram accounts that served the same basic purpose of facilitating discord among the American electorate and promoting policies favorable to the Islamic Republic, and this is not the first time such accounts have been identified and closed down.
As the Huffington Post noted, a similar investigation in August led to the identification of a comparatively staggering 652 false accounts, pages, and groups.
Although the report indicated that no definitive connections have been drawn between such accounts and the Iranian government, the fact remains that hacking and cyberespionage efforts based in the Islamic Republic have been growing recognizably more sophisticated in recent years, which suggests rising levels of financing and direction from regime authorities.
Similar top-down coordination has been alleged in instances of Iranian operatives attempting to attack opposition activists and their supporters in recent months, particularly on Western soil.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press revealed that Danish authorities had foiled an Iranian plot to carry out an assassination in Copenhagen of an activist affiliated with the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz.
The report indicated that a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent was arrested on October 21 for apparently helping Iranian intelligence to develop the plot. Danish government spokespeople also noted that the Iranian ambassador to Denmark had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry over the incident.
The modus operandi on display in the recent plot initially appears to be reminiscent of the planned bombing of an Iranian opposition rally near Paris on June 30. In that case, the plotters intended to rely on a married couple, of Iranian extraction, who were living in Belgium. Their handler, however, was an Iranian diplomat working in Vienna, by the name of Assadollah Assadi. And the would-be targets of the bomb plot, activists of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, quickly determined that the plan had been ordered and approved at the highest levels of the clerical regime.
This conclusion was later corroborated by French intelligence officials, who declared that they had no doubt Tehran was responsible for the plot. Furthermore, the connection between that plot and the would-be assassination in Copenhagen was also highlighted by Danish authorities who commented publicly on the latter.
Yet in spite of these and similar pieces of evidence for coordinated anti-Western plots originating in Tehran, the regime has responded dismissively and has denied all wrongdoing. Jason Rezaian noted that the arrest of Pouyan Khoshhal came only one day after David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, delivered a speech to express the UN’s rising levels of concern over Iran’s targeting of individuals, particularly journalists, abroad. But the Iranian representative on hand for that speech described it as part of a “media war which is planned, organized and funded by hostile governments.”
This commentary reflects familiar Iranian conspiracy theories, which were also reiterated by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Sunday when he ironically called upon the nation’s cyber police and state television officials to step up their efforts to fight political, economic, and cultural “infiltration” by Western “enemies.” According to Reuters, the official Iranian media reports on that speech gave no details regarding the alleged infiltration campaign, which has been vaguely cited by hardline officials and the judiciary to justify arrests and aggressive prosecution of various Western nationals and persons with alleged ties to the West.
Referring to the time since a wave of those arrests in 2015, Rezaian wrote that “the atmosphere for domestic Iranian journalists — as evidenced yet again by the arrest of Khoshhal — has become so stifled that very little real news gets reported anymore.” Consequently, he added, “the credibility of Iran’s official media outlets has never been lower, and the country’s leadership has inadvertently allowed its domestic airwaves to become the ultimate embodiment of their own hypocrisy.”
That hypocrisy is certainly underscored by the efforts of Khamenei and other leading officials to smear Western governments and Western media outlets as being engaged in a conspiracy to influence Iran’s domestic affairs at the very same time that more and more evidence is mounting for Iran’s own efforts to infiltrate Western information networks while also directly targeting foreign nationals both inside the Islamic Republic and throughout the world.