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Iran Decrypted I: Propaganda and the Labeling of Iranian Voices


Iran Decrypted I: Propaganda and the Labeling of Iranian Voices

As modern conflict moves away from hard industrial war to soft information warfare, the recent political unrest in Iran must be analyzed from a new global perspective, one that recognizes the convergence of historical contexts, present-day challenges, and future impacts within an international framework.


Iran Decrypted I: Propaganda and the Labeling of Iranian Voices

As modern conflict moves away from hard industrial war to soft information warfare, the recent political unrest in Iran must be analyzed from a new global perspective, one that recognizes the convergence of historical contexts, present-day challenges, and future impacts within an international framework.

Written by: Sara Salimi | Copy Editors: Zainabrights, Fatima Alhajri | Design: Fatima El-Zein | Consultants: Fiza Raza, Batool Subeiti

The Western world is notorious for dividing Iranians into two main groups: “pro-regime” and “anti-regime.” These labels are taken most advantage of during times of political unrest in Iran, when Western propaganda is quick to translate the situation as one of anti-regime protesters fighting for the downfall of the Islamic Republic, rather than protesters calling for reform and constructive changes at all levels of government and society [66].

One of the most telling examples of Western propaganda campaigns in Iran can be traced to the 1953 CIA and MI6-orchestrated coup in Iran, which overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister who ran a secular democracy. The declassified CIA documents from this coup, which were released 60 years after Mossadegh’s overthrow, reveal chilling realities that demonstrate the extent to which the US and UK had influence within Iranian society [41]. The most effective tool used by the West to implement the coup was a massive propaganda campaign that the CIA and MI6 were directly overseeing.

The top secret documents reveal that the CIA had agents at all levels of Iranian society at the time, from the highest ranking government and military officials to bazaar merchants. The US and UK had not planned a mere military overthrow, but a precisely planned shift in public opinion against Mossadegh through the fabrication of evidence, control of news publications, public rumors that labeled Mossadegh as a dictator and corrupted leader, and “black propaganda” to create distrust and hatred toward him [41]. Whilst this was the case, it is also true that Mossadegh did not have a strong base, especially during the oil crisis, and the Iranian population was not strongly attached to the ideals he was representing to the same degree as the popularity surrounding the Islamic Revolution [120].

According to the declassified files, the “CIA had several articles planted in major American newspapers and magazines, which, when reproduced in Iran, had the desired psychological effect and contributed to the war of nerves against Mossadegh” [41]. This included a CIA study that the State Department published in Newsweek, which is the same publication that recently published the false claim that Iran had sentenced 15,000 protesters to death. Media influencers, actresses such as Viola Davis, and even top politicians including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reposted the false news, only to remove it after Instagram flagged it as false information and independent fact checkers called it out for being inaccurate [49].


This was not the only instance of problematic news sourcing and the spread of misinformation. The Saudi-backed Iran International has played a significant role in spreading propaganda about recent Iran protests, and has come under criticism for being a pro-MEK outlet.The organization has a history of giving airtime to individuals and groups who promote regime change in Iran, including the MEK and spokespersons who praised past terrorist attacks in Iran [58]. In a leaked audio of BBC’s Persian journalist Rana Rahimpour, she states that “Iran International instructed its employees to only conduct television interviews with leaders of anti-regime parties in Iran” [112].

Amidst recent protests, Iran International has become one of the popular news sources for Iranians inside and outside Iran, but its narrative has been challenged by many who believe it is using misinformation to create fear and chaos, and promote violence by taking advantage of the political unrest [59]. The Saudi-funded media outlet was sanctioned by the Iranian government this past October, and Judiciary Deputy Kazem Gharibabadi called for it to be added to the list of terrorist groups for instigating violence and inciting riots within Iran [60].


In a comprehensive study conducted by Fars News Agency, an examination of foreign-backed news outlets like BBC Persian, Iran International, and other Persian news networks headquartered in Europe revealed that these outlets had published an overwhelming amount of fake news about protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. This included falsification of news, distortion, inversion, exaggeration, and reduction of the scale of events [87]. According to the volume of news and published material, BBC had produced the highest amount of false news, followed by Iran International and Radio Farda.

Thus, propaganda campaigns and strategically pushed regime change narratives are not a new occurrence in Iran, with conspiracies of all forms being channeled in this pursuit during the past four decades, from an eight-year war supported by the West to economic sanctions and disinformation war. Even when Iran had a secular government, the West had no reservations planning and executing a coup to overthrow a democratically elected leader.

This raises critical questions about the West’s true motivations when involving itself in the domestic affairs of a nation considering its history of imperialistic deception.

While Western support for protests in Iran is characterized by a regime change narrative that many within the Iranian diaspora in the West endorse, it cannot be said that reactions outside Iran are necessarily reflective of Iranians’ demands within the nation itself. As seen in protests from all parts of the political spectrum in Iran, a significant percentage of Iranians are not after regime change, but demand major policy reforms in both the social and economic sectors to meet their needs as Iranian citizens. Like the people of all countries, Iranians seek the betterment of their nation and are critical about their government in many ways, but they will resist being used as instruments of US foreign policy [45].

Iranians also realize that a major cause of their economic grievances is rooted in Western sanctions that have devalued the currency, caused inflation, and led to record unemployment rates; it is simply a case of this being worsened under administrations such as Rouhani’s, partly due to his neoliberal fiscal policies that caused violent backlash from the strata of society hit hardest by them, which also fueled the protests in 2019 as the government failed to adopt meaningful redistributive measures in face of surging inequality [122]. This is while in the late 1990s, Iran’s economy was stable but struggling with the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. The overall economy, however, was doing considerably well, as wages complemented living expenses since the currency was much stronger, until Western sanctions were introduced starting in the late 1990s [121].

Contrary to the narrative presented in the West, Iranians do seek the implementation of the popular ideals that the revolution initially promised in theory but did not succeed in completely delivering. These included the security of jobs and general welfare through the distribution of wealth, rather than the more Western model of taming inflation through reducing budget deficit, a policy that some critics believe is the root cause of a recession which has led to a rise in unemployment and the drive to attract foreign investment, which made Rouhani unpopular to certain segments of Iranian society during his last tenure [122, 123].

In fact, a large proportion of Iranians openly reject the desperate pleas of figures like Masih Alinejad and Maryam Rajavi, women who are funded and supported by the US government and are considered traitors by the Iranian people [23]. Alinejad has been living as a journalist in the US for the past decade and works at Voice of America, Washington’s state-owned propaganda mouthpiece and the largest and oldest US-funded international broadcaster.

Between 2015 and 2022, the US Agency for Global Media paid Alinejad over $628,000 for her activities, which included instructing women in Iran to take videos in very specific ways to push forward an anti-government narrative [46]. Alinejad frequently calls for international sanctions against Iran as well, which are designed to harm the Iranian people and weaken them into submission, despite claiming that she is a supporter of the Iranian people.

This has led many to question Alinejad’s intentions, as her vocal support for Iranians appears to be more of an imperialist scheme than a genuine concern for human rights. This was especially apparent after Alinejad called for sanctions against Iran, a move that led some to view her as a “pawn of neo-imperialists like Mike Pompeo” [47]. This suspicion is not exclusive to conservative and religious Iranians, but is also shared by more liberal Iranians who are all too aware of the ulterior motives of Western governments and their history of warmongering.

At the same time, it is critical to understand that the narratives pushed by Western agents like Alinejad and Rajavi do affect public perception about Iran in the West and could have the reverse effect of encouraging even more pressure on the Iranian people through increased sanctions. The real dangers of propaganda machines lie in their ability to present warmongering strategies like heightened pressure and increased sanctions as a solution, while these tactics directly contradict human rights, are proven to harm the lives and livelihoods of the people of a nation, and are anti-democratic at the core, since the people are being pressured to submit to Western dictates [48].

 If it is argued that the West simply cares about Iranian demands, it is worth asking why they installed the Shah, who suppressed the Iranian population in the worst form through its notorious SAVAK secret police, and why did it attempt to suppress the revolution in 1979 when 99.8% of the population supported it? [124].

Written by: Sara Salimi | Copy Editors: Zainabrights, Fatima Alhajri | Design: Fatima El-Zein | Consultants: Fiza Raza, Batool Subeiti






























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