According to a Facebook press release, an Iranian network was removed from the social networking site in September which consisted of 93 accounts, 14 pages, and 15 groups. Additionally, 194 accounts were removed from Facebook-owned Instagram for participation in the same “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The source of that coordination, in this case, was determined to be the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian regime’s hardline paramilitary organization.
In contrast to other networks that have been removed from both Facebook and Twitter in the past, the network in question reportedly focused its efforts on a domestic audience. More specifically, some of the participating accounts were found to be posing as members of the opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and also as members of the Kurdish ethnic minority. These deceptions were evidently intended to foster engagement with genuine members of those groups and to give an air of legitimacy to some of the content being posted about them.
This reflects a strategy that Iranian disinformation networks have long utilized in spreading talking points beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic. In February, an Iranian expatriate named Hadi Sani-Kani wrote an open letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in which he admitted to being a member of one such network and to having been recruited by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security shortly after leaving a compound in Albania that has housed around 3,000 members of the PMOI since 2016.
After describing how the MOIS tasked him with writing and disseminating false stories about the PMOI, Sani-Kani stated, “I had been in the ranks of the PMOI for about 14 years and knew that not a single word of these utterances was true.” He then went on to profess a willingness to “testify before any court or impartial authority” and provide documentary evidence regarding the nature, tactics, and global reach of Tehran’s campaign of disinformation against the leading pro-democracy opposition group.
One example of that global reach had made headlines only a few weeks prior to the Sani-Kani letter when the United States Department of Justice announced the indictment of a Massachusetts political scientist who had been extensively published in Western media over more than a decade while presenting himself as an independent analyst of Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs. The indictment revealed that throughout that period of time, Afrasiabi had been receiving financial compensation from the Iranian regime, totaling at least a quarter of a million dollars.
Afrasiabi’s arrest evoked concerns about the possibility of other citizens of the US and Europe acting as secret conduits for the regime. In its wake, nine members of the US House of Representatives wrote a letter to the DOJ calling for investigations that might uncover the identities of such individuals. A prior letter from three Senators had already given the DOJ a sense of where it might begin its search, singling out Trita Parsi, a co-founder of the National Iranian-American Council, as someone whose talking points and known relationships with Iranian officials raised questions about the true intentions behind his media outreach.
Parsi had, in fact, shared bylines with Afrasiabi prior to the latter’s arrest. Yet over the past year, there has been little indication of the US or any other leading Western power taking actions to expose and disrupt influence networks that enjoy access to Western media outlets. This inaction is alarming in light of the fact that between 2019 and 2020, two German media outlets were ordered to remove elements of two separate reports on the PMOI which had apparently been unwittingly sourced from MOIS operatives.
— Iran News Update (@IranNewsUpdate1) October 6, 2021
There can be little doubt that other journalists, in other Western countries, have been similarly duped in recent years, and that the resulting reporting remained in print or online for long enough to influence broader media narratives, and perhaps also Western policy toward the Islamic Republic. As long as those narratives remain uncorrected, they will surely continue to feed a cycle of Iranian disinformation which has an adverse impact on the lives of Iranian citizens and the prospect of the organized opposition group achieving its democratic goals.
It is unlikely that future coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook will remain focused on a domestic audience. But even if it does, that behavior stands to be strengthened by the presence of regime talking points in Western media. This allows Iranian social media accounts and Iranian state media to cite foreign news as evidence in support of their claims about the opposition, even though that “evidence” can ultimately be traced back to the original source of the claims.
The latest Facebook report provided some insight into what those claims are, as it provided a screenshot of one deceptive post which claimed that the PMOI’s membership is shrinking as its aging leaders die off. Such posts are no doubt aimed at demoralizing existing supporters and would be supporters of the opposition, especially those who might have been inspired by its role in nationwide anti-government uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019.
Iranian officials have been voicing concern about the recurrence of that unrest for the past three years, and in a virtual conference in July, the Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi predicted that there would be an unprecedented increase in “hostility and enmity” between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people during the era that was set to begin with the inauguration of President Ebrahim Raisi.
In the same conference, Adam Ereli, a former US ambassador to Iran, connected the regime’s fear of unrest with its commitment to disinformation specifically targeting the PMOI. “Perhaps the greatest testimony to your effectiveness is the fact that the Iranian regime hates you so much and will stop at nothing to destroy you,” he told supporters of the group. “That speaks volumes. It says that they consider you a threat. And frankly, whatever’s bad for the Iranian regime is good for the rest of the world.”