by Saeed Aganji
As in other authoritarian states, the Iranian media landscape is greatly shaped by outlets with close links to the security and intelligence establishment. Media outlets with links to security organizations are usually launched with a defined approach and clear goal in mind. They work not only to advance the agendas of their patrons but also to weaken critics of such organizations. While receiving financial, security, and judicial support, these media outlets publish biased and targeted content. A further characteristic of this “security media” is that they employ military and security personnel as their managers, with little regard for journalistic standards.
Fars News Agency, which was launched in January 2003, is an example of this security media. The news agency belongs to the paramilitary Basij Organization and is financially supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Its links with security organizations as well as biased approach first became evident during the 2005 presidential elections. At the time, it started to tarnish the image of the moderate candidate, late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, while boosting conservative upstart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The person in charge of this operation was the editor of the news agency’s political service, Mohammad Paariyaab, who had previously worked with Sobh-e Sadegh, which belongs to the IRGC.
In 2008, Hamid Reza Moghaddam-Far, a senior member of the IRGC, was appointed as the managing director of Fars News Agency. With this appointment the IRGC hoped to manage news related to the 2009 presidential elections. For instance, Fars News announced Ahmadinejad’s victory, with 24 million votes, just minutes after the election’s close. After completing his mission in Fars News Agency, Moghaddam-Far once again returned to the IRGC in September 2011.
Rouhani and the Security Media
The shape of the media landscape has not gone unchallenged, particularly in recent years. At the 2014 National Conference on Promoting Administrative Integrity, moderate President Hassan Rouhani rather bluntly said, “If money, weapon and media all gather together in one organization, there will certainly be corruption,” targeting the IRGC in an attempt to expose the nature of the media outlets connected to it.
But in practice, such outlets remain immune from prosecution, publishing accusations against both administration officials and dissidents with impunity. Although both individuals and legal entities have filed legal complaints against these media outlets, they have yet to be held accountable in court due to the power and influence of the IRGC. At the same time, Reformist media outlets that support the administration—Bahar newspaper in 2014, Ghanoon newspaper in 2016—have been repeatedly closed down as a result of their political leanings.
Tasnim News Agency, another media outlet connected to the security establishment, was launched in 2012. Operating in parallel with Fars News Agency, it was also founded by Hamid Reza Moghaddam-Far, who rose to become deputy for cultural and social affairs of the IRGC.
Tasnim and Fars, whose agenda and content are prepared by the IRGC, use terms and key words mentioned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in order to assemble what is commonly referred to as “security cases.” For instance, after the disputed 2009 presidential elections, Khamenei used the word “sedition” to address critics who questioned the election results. This one key word was enough for the security media to start addressing the issue and paving the way for the security establishment to confront Reformist political activists and journalists.
Before Iran’s eleventh presidential elections in 2013, media outlets connected to the IRGC commonly prepared security cases that the Ministry of Intelligence then executed. For instance, in Feb. 2013, the ministry arrested 19 journalists. The security media referred to the arrestees as members of “the sedition group connected to foreign-based media outlets.” When Rouhani took office, however, the Ministry of Intelligence’s approach toward journalists and media outlets changed. This change resulted in a conflict between the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC, which resulted in the IRGC taking over the entire process of designing, preparing, and executing security cases with the aid of its media outlets.
Battling over the JCPOA
In 2015, the security media undertook another project to oppose the nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers. For instance, in October 2015, during a meeting with the commanders and officials of the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ayatollah Khamenei said, “It is forbidden to negotiate with the United States; what the United States wants out of negotiation is infiltration.” In this vein, IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said on November 2, 2015, “The fourth sedition is a dangerous and long sedition.” He then added, “The United States is more interested in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] than we are because they are interested in what comes after it.”
Jafari’s comments had been preceded by the arrest of two foreign citizens—Lebanese resident of the United States Nizar Zakka and Iranian American Siamak Namazi—in August 2015. However, the very next day after his speech, five journalists with ties to the Rouhani administration were detained while the security media published a series of articles about the “discovery of an American network of infiltration in Iran’s press.”
After these arrests and the increasing talk of “infiltration,” Rouhani reacted by saying, “We need to seriously and genuinely fight against any sort of foreign infiltration and we should not allow anyone to misuse the term ‘infiltration’ for their own personal gains or for the benefit of a certain political faction.”
As key opponents of the nuclear deal, the IRGC and radical principlists continued to use the security media to either target the JCPOA or weaken the nuclear negotiation team.
For instance, in May 2017, Javad Karimi-Ghodousi, a member of parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, once again claimed that some members of the negotiation team are spies. He had first initiated the claims last year, which precipitated denials from both the foreign ministry and the intelligence ministry. Moreover, on August 17, the office of the president responded to Karimi-Ghodousi’s comments by emphasizing that accusing the members of the negotiation team of being spies belittles the position of MPs.
The security media—Fars News Agency and Tasnim as well as Keyhan and Vatan Emrooz newspapers—view the JCPOA as an important achievement for Rouhani’s administration, so generally its positive political and economic outcomes. Even before the nuclear agreement reached its conclusion, they attempted to prevent the compromise from taking place. However, due to the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamanei had announced his relative support, the security media and the hardline political factions could not implement their project.
However, after the nuclear deal they reiterated that the JCPOA is a disgrace and began lobbying for Iran to withdraw from the agreement. The security media is constantly putting pressure on Rouhani’s administration by emphasizing that the P5+1 countries, particularly the United States, are failing to implement the deal. Donald Trump’s statement at the United Nations against Iran, his repeated statements of dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal, and his desire to void or at least renegotiate the agreement have prompted a reaction from Rouhani, who continues to state that “Iran will never be the first party to violate the agreement.” Rouhani has asked for the Trump administration to apologize to the Iranian nation and insisted that the JCPOA is not renegotiable. Trump’s position against the nuclear deal is precisely in line with Iran’s security media and the hardline political factions. The security media is taking advantage of this opportunity to put pressure on Rouhani’s administration to withdraw from the JCPOA.
In the past, the security media could advance their agendas without facing any obstacles, particularly considering that Iranian activists, and Iranian citizens more broadly, had limited access to information tools. Now, however, the Rouhani administration has been able to create obstacles for them by strengthening communication infrastructures and using tools of communication such as Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram to put out its counter-message.
The outcome of recent battles is clear. In the media war that took place between the security media and pro-Rouhani outlets, both during the nuclear negotiations and in the 2017 presidential elections, the administration and its supporters emerged as the winners. Only time will tell whether these are one-offs or part of a genuine realignment of the Iranian media landscape.
Saeed Aganji is an Iranian journalist, researcher, and former editor-in-chief of the Saba student publication. Photo: Hamid Reza Moghaddam-Far.