How Iran’s Propaganda Machine Succeeds in the West
Iran has been successful in dividing public opinion in the West over supporting the Iranians’ struggle for freedom and democracy.
When the 1979 Revolution in Iran was still in its nascent phase, the majority of the groups involved were secular and left-wing. However, the religious factions ultimately took over and established the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) due to, in large part, better organizational capacities, pragmatism and foreign help. In turn, the regime became, and still is, a theocratic dictatorship. As a result, and as is the case in any dictatorship, the regime set out to devise a strategy to legitimize its dictatorial nature as well as the cult of its supreme leader.
To do so, the regime adopted a double-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it exported its ideological religious revolution to Shia-majority countries and, crucially, to Shia-majority areas in Sunni countries to stir sectarian disorder. On the other hand, Tehran established an effective propaganda machine in what it deems to be a hostile West. The latter aspect is a fact that is little known and even less recognized, and yet it has been of great significance in helping to legitimize the regime.
The body behind this propaganda machine in the Western world is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is directly run by Ayatollah Khamenei and his son, Mojtaba Khamenei. Indeed, the IRGC trains both the regime’s armed and ideological soldiers who go through extreme indoctrination from a very early age. Thousands of non-combatant IRGC members were enrolled in order to implement Iran’s ideological war by publishing articles and research papers in the media, making documentaries and, more recently, adopting a savvy use of social media. In fact, in Iran IRGC members are commonly referred to as the Unknown Soldiers of the Imam Mehdi, and as Cyber Corps, which is part of the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC (SAS) known as the Cyber Attack Army.
Although the Islamic Republic has always been an ideologically-driven regime, these efforts increased dramatically when Khamenei became the supreme leader in 1989. Prior to this, the ayatollah’s position was presented by Khomeini as the velāyat-e faqīh (guardianship of the jurist), not only the most important religious position in the Shia world, but also the most important political one — as the leader of the revolution. In turn, Khomeini realized that in order to secure the concentration of all powers in his hands, he needed to achieve two things: the creation of the cult of the supreme leader and the reinforcement of ideological indoctrination in order to extend his influence abroad.
However, during the 1990s, these efforts were increased by his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, who started to invest billions of dollars in ideological centers in order to further cement his power. This policy also became an important part of all government institutions in Iran, and there are now numerous ideological centers that are solely funded by the government, alongside others run directly by the supreme leader and his son, with no verifiable information on their expenditure. Moreover, despite the current economic difficulties, an important part of the state budget still goes toward these institutions.
Significantly, unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, who had absolute power and support of his followers from the outset, Ali Khamenei only reached supreme power after 10 years, after an indoctrination process during which he eliminated all potential rivals, including Ahmad Khomeini, the son of Ayatollah Khomeini. Following this, Khamenei was able to secure his power through an astute understanding of how to use the ideological role of supreme leader to secure religious support through the ideological centers.
Herein lies the deceptive and disingenuous nature of Iran Poll surveys. They claim that Iranians believe the IRI is democratic while simultaneously claiming that Iranians do not want democratic forms of expression.
One of these, the Rouzbeh Education Center, was established directly by Ayatollah Khamenei in 1989, only a few months after becoming supreme leader. Until present day, this center is one of the institutions responsible for delivering ideological training on the role of the supreme leader to many government officials, particularly security and IRGC forces, as well as their families. This center now has branches in many cities in central and northeastern Iran, areas that the popularity of the supreme leader depends on. This center was first established for young children to be educated outside of the remit of the Ministry of Education, but it now also offers higher education courses up to postgraduate level and works very closely with Iliad International, which is the main body responsible for deploying Iranian students to study and settle in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Malaysia and the United Kingdom.
Apart from indoctrination, this center also strongly relies on Sajjadiyah, a holy Shia manuscript similar to the hadiths (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) which Khamenei describes as being of equal importance to the Quran. In fact, some people very close to the ayatollah even consider it as more important and trustworthy than some hadiths and the best book that describes the Quran. Sajjadiyah and its school are considered by Khamenei and Shia ideologues as the only path to finding truth and justice.
Spreading the Influence
Rouzbeh Center in Iran is one of the most effective institutions that has worked relentlessly to legitimatize Ayatollah Khamenei as the leader of the revolution and the importance of his role in the Islamic world. The majority of graduate students from this institution have important positions in various fields in Iran and abroad. A teacher who used to work at the institution told this author that “the amount of investment poured into these centers is very dangerous for the future of Iran as they gather, train and then deploy soldiers instead of being an institution dedicated to developing the country’s infrastructure.” Their university cadre, known as “the “Jihadi students,” go to remote villages across Iran on ideological and recruitment missions.
In order to understand the extent of the influence wielded by ideological institutions such as the Rouzbeh Center, the example of Iran Poll — a Canada-based polling company — is revealing. In the past few years, the Center for International Security Studies (CISSM) at Maryland University has produced reports on polling surveys that have become popular among academics, the media and politicians in the West. The reports are mostly published under the name of Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni. In 2009, Mojtaba Khamenei helped Mohseni and Professor Mohammad Marandi to establish the University of Tehran Centre for Public Opinion Research (UTCPOR). Marandi — who studied in America and understands the mentality of Western media, politicians and writers — leads UTCPOR, which is monitored by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. He frequently appears on mainstream media, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera, among others, but one thing that these media organizations either do not know or fail to mention is that he is the son of Dr. Marandi, the head of Ayatollah Khamenei’s special medical team.
Professor Marandi occupies his position thanks to nepotism and because his father is a loyal member of the regime, and he is fully trusted to carry out further indoctrination and to promote the IRI. On the other hand, some think that Ebrahim Mohseni works for the IRGC as he appears to give lectures to the Basij Resistance Force at universities in Iran and is frequently quoted on IRGC-backed news websites — a fact never mentioned in Western media.
At the heart of this network lies the very founder of Iran Poll, Amir Farmanesh, shown in this photo in a dark blue jacket, third from the left, during training at the Rouzbeh Center. One of his teachers told this author: “He was brought to study at this center and the center is run by the supreme leader’s office. They always try to bring in smart students. It is a center to produce the most loyal figures and they provide students with everything they need.” He added, “Last year I was shocked when I saw him in Switzerland presenting polling surveys, because Farmanesh always wanted to go and fight alongside his brothers in Palestine.”
One of Farmanesh’s friends described him to the author as “a quiet person but very smart and someone who surprises you as soon as he participates in a subject.” In short, the regime has not only spread its influence in the region but has penetrated Western institutions and media, which is what the IRGC calls countering the West’s soft war against Iran. These polling surveys aim to ensure that public opinion in the West is shaped by the narrative presented by the IRGC in which Ayatollah Khamenei represents the will of Iranians, Qasem Soleimani — the head of Iran’s Quds Force (the special forces branch of the IRGC) — is the most beloved person among Iranians, and Iran is a free and democratic country.
Iran Poll plays a central role, while CISSM and others are used to present the main objective designed by Iran Poll.
A Different Reality
Furthermore, a significant amount of effort has been dedicated to presenting the polling surveys as a product of Maryland University. However, these are produced by Iran Poll. Iran Poll conducts research freely in Iran, which no other organization is allowed to do, and almost all of their election polls correctly predict official results. In addition, the majority of popular media outlets on the internet have one or more pieces that name Iran Poll as a reference. To a large extent, this is because there are no non-governmental polling institutes in Iran as this is prohibited by the regime, as in any other dictatorship.
Nevertheless, this also reveals the monopoly Iran Poll has over the Western media when it comes to Iran, which demonstrates a troubling lack of critical assessment toward a polling institution supported by the regime in Tehran, which by its very essence cannot be neutral. In fact, Iran Poll has even got a special license from the United States Treasury Department, which allows it to make all the necessary transactions to pay for public opinion polling in Iran. (According to an informed source, the Treasury may revoke the license, which was issued to People Analytics Inc. but is being used by Iran Poll.)
By way of example, according to one of Iran Poll’s reports, the reason for people’s participation in elections is based on their belief in in the current political system. One survey question asks, “Do you think people in Iran have too much, too little, or just about the right amount of freedom?” The result indicates that the vast majority of Iranians believe Iran is free and democratic, and more than 15% also claim that there is too much freedom in Iran. Moreover, other reports suggest that more than 90% of Iranians think that elections are fair, democratic and free. The same report continues: “In your opinion, to what degree should our country’s policy makers take religious teachings into account when they make decisions?” Over 45% reply as “a lot,” 29.5% “somewhat,” 15.5% “not much” and 6.9% “not at all.”
The sad reality about countries like Iran is that totalitarian states only understand the language of force and economic pressure. In the past, Iran refused to negotiate over its nuclear program, but sanctions ended up playing the most important role in bringing it to the negotiating table.
It is clear that the polling survey reports have the intention of galvanizing support for the regime by showing that there is backing for it. The results presented suggest that the overwhelming majority of Iranians support the position of the supreme leader, think that Iran is a democratic and free country, want their country to be a nuclear power and are behind Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In addition, the polling surveys suggest that Iranians condone the mass killing of Syrians by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran’s role in Syria and Iran’s expansionist policies in the region.
What is apparent is that these results do not reflect the reality on the ground but seem to resemble the official government propaganda. Furthermore, the partnership with Maryland University has given Iran Poll a certain degree of legitimacy, which is also concerning because the polling institutes of many other dictatorships would be met with legitimate caution and reserve. (The university has not yet responded to the author’s questions regarding the partnership when approached for comment.)
The latest survey by Iran Poll claims that 82% of Iranians consume news about domestic and international affairs through domestic state-owned media. However, according to reports published in Iran, domestic channels have been surpassed by foreign media — a fact that even Iranian officials admit.
Furthermore, just over 6% watch the most popular news channel in Iran. Indeed, according to experts and those who work for domestic and state-run TV channels, the younger generation often doesn’t even know the names of the domestic outlets. In fact, the recent attempts by the government to ban the popular Telegram messenger and other social media applications is based on the awareness that this is where Iranians get their news from and, most importantly, where they challenge the regime. Yet, despite all this, Iran Poll surveys are still presented as reliable and scientific sources.
In relation to Iranians challenging the regime on social media, an Iran Poll survey nonetheless claims that, following popular protests that started at the end of 2017, 68% of Iranians believe that those who chanted slogans against the political system of the IRI should be punished, and 93% believe those who burned the Iranian flag should be punished harshly. These results are in line with the regime’s justification of mass arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings that took place after the protests.
Treasury sanctions Mohammad Amer Alchwiki and his Russia-based company as central figures in complex Iran-Russia-Syria oil for terror financing scheme, used by Central Bank of Iran to fund IRGC-Qods Force, Hizballah and HAMAS https://t.co/maEbLM5O2K pic.twitter.com/nboJrUfVwd
— Treasury Department (@USTreasury) November 20, 2018
Herein lies the deceptive and disingenuous nature of Iran Poll surveys. They claim that Iranians believe the IRI is democratic while simultaneously claiming that Iranians do not want democratic forms of expression. These examples underline the fact that these surveys are neither scientific nor reliable, but rather a mouthpiece for the supreme leader. A critical approach to these surveys demonstrates that these polls are not only fabricated, but are also the product of Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological foot soldiers, who have ingeniously used a respected Western tool such as polling surveys, and a respected body — a university — to spread the idea that Ayatollah Khamenei is the true representative of the Iranians’ democratic will.
Significantly, the numerous reports published by the United Nations and human rights organizations that denounce Iran’s grave human rights violations, such as mass torture, public hangings and the repression of women’s rights, are never mentioned.
Another aspect that demonstrates these people’s loyalty to the regime is that none of the institutions they represent have written anything critical about Iran or its human rights abuses, such as its use of child soldiers — a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch documents that the IRI has used Afghan children in the fight against Syrian opposition groups — but solely focus on how Iran could confront US pressure. This is yet another demonstration of how influential Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological army in the West is when it comes to covering Iran affairs. Pro-regime writers who are either at the helm of these organizations or work for these entities in the West try to connect Iran’s destabilizing role in the region to Tehran’s national security.
Nevertheless, they are clearly aware of the desire for regime change by Iranians because they do in fact write about it. Some of them even suggest that regime change will not work, and that diplomatic solutions are a better way to negotiate on regional and human rights issues. However, it goes without saying that there can be no human rights in a dictatorship, so it seems apparent that they are merely seeking to secure the status quo. In fact, reports prove that under President Hassan Rouhani and his so-called moderate government Iran’s human rights records is worse than under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and that Iran’s destabilizing, sectarian and hostile influence has spread more than ever in the region.
Increasing the Pressure
These efforts by Ayatollah Khamenei to establish such organizations and deploy more of his soldiers to the West have increased due to challenges he faces at home. The regime has lost its ideological and political legitimacy among Iranians — especially among the young generation — and this has pushed Tehran to establish its defense system in the West by misleading public opinion. This plan has worked, as seen from the poor coverage of the most recent protests in Western media.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological foot soldiers are producing more reports to prevent Western countries, organizations or individuals from supporting the Iranians’ efforts for change by spreading fear that supporting protests directly leads to a war with Iran. They know that after the Iraq War, the appetite for military conflict in the West has declined considerably. Therefore, Iran has been successful in dividing public opinion in the West over supporting the Iranians’ struggle for freedom and democracy.
Sanctions imposed on Iran on November 4 heavily target Iranian security forces, which play a crucial role in torturing and executing political prisoners and activists in Iran — the same security forces that have tried to conduct terrorist attacks in Europe in recent months. It is also these security forces that are tasked with spreading Iran’s influence abroad through various organizations in the West and destabilizing activities, proxy wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine and in Syria, and the training and funding of terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Ansarollah. In essence, if the EU and the international community want to prevent more wars, the key to pressuring Iran into ending its support for terrorism and spreading conflict in the region is to ensure the successful implementation of sanctions.
The sad reality about countries like Iran is that totalitarian states only understand the language of force and economic pressure. In the past, Iran refused to negotiate over its nuclear program, but sanctions ended up playing the most important role in bringing it to the negotiating table. It was not the will of the regime to open up Iran to the international community like pro-Iran deal voices claim. More importantly, the true nature of organizations that represent the policies of Tehran in the West should be known and be treated accordingly.
*[Editor’s Note: Following an editorial review, we retract the claim made by the author regarding the National Iranian American Council, Bourse and Bazar and the Europe-Iran Forum.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.