by Muhammad Sahimi
Since the 1979 revolution, millions of Iranians have left their country. Many left voluntarily, as college students who wanted to pursue advanced degrees, as professionals—medical doctors, engineers, and scientists—who thought that they could be more successful in the West, as investors who wanted to invest in what they considered to be more secure markets, and so on. Others left involuntarily, because they were political activists who no longer felt safe in Iran and were concerned about their safety and that of their families. Some had spent years in prison, and after they were released were told that they could receive their passport and leave Iran legally, provided that they would never return. The precise size of the Iranian diaspora is unknown, but it is probably around 2.5 million.
With the exception of a small minority, both within Iran and outside the country, which still supports the theocratic regime in Tehran for various reasons, the vast majority of the Iranian diaspora, as well as those who live in Iran, opposes the revolutionary velayat-e faqih system of governance [guardianship of the Islamic jurist, as represented by the position of the Supreme Leader]. Most Iranians in the diaspora instead support a secular democratic republic in which religion plays no role in the government and, unlike the current system, clerics have no special role or rights. But although the opposition to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rule is unified, deep fissures exist about how to replace him and the velayat-e faqih system with that hoped-for secular democratic republic.
Iran’s Two Oppositions
In this respect, the Iranian diaspora may be divided into two groups. One group represents a very large majority that many polls indicate supports peaceful transition to a democratic republic, spearheaded by the Iranians living in Iran and supported by the diaspora, but without any intervention by outside powers. The majority opposes economic sanctions, military threats, war, and attempts to instigate ethnic strife within Iran. It supports Iran’s national security in the war-ravaged Middle East, and its territorial integrity. It is, therefore, a natural ally of the true opposition within Iran, a broad coalition of workers’ and teachers’ unions, human rights activists, and those who oppose discrimination against women and religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the reformists, leftists, nationalists, and the nationalist-religious group.
The second group, referred to by most both inside Iran and in the diaspora as the opozision-e gholabi—the fake opposition—is a very small minority that has allied itself firmly with the Trump administration, as well as the trio of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. While before Donald Trump was elected, this minority was “shy” about supporting economic sanctions and even war against Iran, since 2017 it has openly supported them. Anyone who is opposed to the Iran policies of the Trump administration and its three Middle Eastern allies is labeled by the fake opposition as a “lobbyist” for the regime in Tehran, even though many in the true opposition, including this author, are actually political exiles that cannot go to Iran for fear of getting arrested.
But here is the problem: With practically unlimited funds provided by the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Freedom House, and many right-wing and pro-war foundations, with very few exceptions practically all the Farsi websites based outside Iran are controlled by the fake opposition. Add to these the Saudi-linked Farsi Independent website and the Farsi division of al-Arabiya that are also home for the supporters of the fake opposition. Each and every one of them advocates, directly or indirectly, for economic sanctions at least, and often military threats and war. At the same time, since the Trump administration came to power, the Farsi division of Voice of America has been controlled by the fake opposition and its supporters. Rarely, if ever, do we see an Iranian analyst or pundit who opposes economic sanctions and war invited to contribute to Voice of America’s programs.
At the same time, several major satellite TV stations, including “Iran International” that has links with Saudi Arabia, Man-o To [you and I]—whose source of funding, which based on its operations for the past ten years must be very significant, has remained secret—and multiple satellite TV stations in southern California all support the fake opposition.
Thus, for a long time, the very large majority that supports peaceful transition in Iran without outside interference was practically silent, because it neither had the resources to have its own means of reaching people inside Iran, nor was it willing to accept funding from the U.S. government with strings attached. The few who tried to launch independent websites ultimately failed. A good example was the website Tehran Bureau. During the Green Movement of 2009-2010 Tehran Bureau was the go-to-website for the latest news and most realistic analyses, but it eventually shut down due to lack of funding. We were told that we could receive funding from the State Department if we did not “petition [i.e., criticize] U.S. foreign policy,” which we refused. I left the website in the fall of 2012.
Gradually, the true opposition in the diaspora recognized the power of social networks, and began utilizing them to reach Iranian people in Iran, as well as to counter propaganda by the fake opposition that has been advocating economic sanctions and even war. These networks include Telegram, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Despite censorship inside Iran, Telegram is read by tens of millions of Iranians, and Facebook and Twitter are also used widely. Thus, many political exiles allied with the true opposition within Iran began presenting their views through social networks, reaching millions of Iranians.
But as the voice of the true opposition in the diaspora became stronger, the fake opposition began worrying. Controlling all the major Farsi websites outside Iran, as well as the Farsi programs of Voice of America and other aforementioned satellite TVs, is not enough for the fake opposition. It demands total support for its destructive positions, or it tries to silence the opposition to it.
In a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, Ahmad Batebi, a former political prisoner, asked him “to cleanse the Farsi mass media outside Iran of the lobbyists” for the regime in Tehran, which by definition meant anyone who opposed the Trump administration policy vis-à-vis Iran. I do not believe Batebi even knows the meaning of a “lobbyist.” Mehdi Falahati who produces a program for Voice of America called Khat-e Ghermez [“The Red Line”] declared explicitly that he will never invite to his program those who support reforming the regime in Tehran—that is, anyone who supports reformists and allied groups. Another suggestion was “to expel all the supporters of the [Iranian] Reformists from the U.S. Government, including the Pentagon, the State Department, the Treasury, Voice of America, and Radio Farda,” never mind the absurdity of the idea that any Iranian who is truly concerned about his/her homeland would be willing to work for the Trump administration under the present circumstances. It was also suggested by some in the fake opposition to set up a sort of a “center” to monitor all Farsi websites outside Iran in order to expunge the articles published by them that opposed economic sanctions and military threats.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration also got into the act. It was revealed recently that the E-Collaborative for Civic Education, known in Farsi as Tavaana, co-founded by Iranian-American activist Mariam Memarsadeghi and her husband Akbar Atri (an Iranian right-winger), had received a large grant from the State Department for what is called the Iran Disinformation Project. The original idea was supposedly the counter the narrative of the regime in Tehran. But instead, it had turned into a vehicle for attacking Iran’s true opposition—all Iranians and Iranian-Americans [and even Americans} who oppose Trump’s “maximum pressure policy” toward Iran, or are not “sufficiently supportive” of it. It became so embarrassing that the State Department had to suspend its funding, said to be $1.5 million.
The MEK, the cult-like opposition group that up until 2011 was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department and is universally despised by all Iranians, has also been heavily involved in attacks on the true opposition. The Intercept reported how “Heshmat Alavi,” an “Iranian” who had published many articles at Forbes, The Hill, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, and al-Arabiya English, attacking Iran’s true opposition, is not a real person. Rather, its persona “is a propaganda operation run by the MEK.” In addition, “The MEK conducts relentless online information campaigns, using an army of bots to flood online debates about Iran with the group’s perspective.”
The attacks by the MEK or other parts of the fake opposition appear to be well-coordinated. This can easily be detected in social networks. For example, as soon as a tweet is sent out that the fake opposition does not like, a huge wave of tweets under false names almost immediately attacks it. Inspection of the times at which the attackers send their tweets indicates clearly that they are coordinated, and most likely sent by bots, rather than human beings. One example can be found here.
Silencing Opposition Voices on Facebook
The campaign of silencing the true opposition has now spread to Facebook. Coordinated attacks are waged against any Facebook page that espouses opposition to the policies of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and Israel toward Iran, including economic sanctions and war, as well as military intervention in other countries. In addition, the Facebook pages of anyone who counters the efforts by pro-monarchist groups promoting Reza Pahlavi, the son of former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—along with a false history about Iran’s “golden era” under the Pahlavi dynasty’s rule that has been propagated by the aforementioned satellite TVs—are also attacked.
The attacks are carried out in one or both of the following ways. The attackers create false Facebook pages under the same names as those whom they wish to attack. For example, my Facebook page is here, but there is also a false page under exactly the same name here. These false pages are used to attack others, using lies, profanities, and insults. Then, the same persons who created the false pages “complain” to Facebook and report on their own outrageous behavior posted under other people’s names. Another way is a coordinated complaint against those who oppose the fake opposition. The result is that Facebook suspends the pages of the true opposition under the excuse that they had used their pages “against the community standards.” When Facebook is contacted and asked about the post that was supposedly against the community standards, no response is typically received.
A good example is what has been happening to Akbar Ganji and his Facebook page. Ganji is a leading investigative journalist, human rights advocate, and independent researcher. He played a key role in revealing the serial crimes committed by a gang in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence that, between 1988 and 1998, murdered dozens of dissidents, intellectuals, and political activists. As a result of his revelations about the murders, known in Iran as Ghatl hay Zanjireh-ei [the Chain Murders], Ganji was imprisoned for six years. He now lives in exile in the United States, and has received eleven major international awards and honors
But over the past few months Ganji’s Facebook page has been blocked four times: once for three days, a second time for one week, a third time for one month, and recently for another three days. The reason? Monarchists are not happy that Ganji has been publishing a series of detailed investigative reports on corruption under the Shah’s rule, trying to counter the false propaganda about his regime and Iran’s “golden era.” Ganji contacted Facebook to inquire about blocking his page, but received no response. In writing this article I sent an e-mail to Facebook’s press office asking why Ganji’s page had been blocked. I too did not receive a response.
I asked my friends to tell me whether their Facebook pages have also been blocked. Ms. Sepideh Jodeyri, an Iranian poet and feminist activist who has published 10 books and lives in exile in Washington, responded, “After I supported [former Iranian Prime Minister] Mir Hossein Mousavi (the true leader of Iran’s opposition) [by publishing a piece in Lobelog], some of the monarchists and those who want to overthrow the regime violently threatened me by saying that they will make [false] reports to the Facebook to destroy my page. In addition, some members of Farashgard [an ultraright, pro-monarchy Iranian group closely allied with the Trump administration] attacked me in my twitter page, suggesting to report on my page, and called me shaae’r velaaii [pro-Khamenei poet].” All this is while Ms. Jodeyri lives in exile, and Mousavi and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, together with another opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi , have been under house arrest for almost nine years.
My Facebook page, which has a relatively large number of readers both in diaspora and within Iran, has had the same fate. Over the past three months it has been blocked three times: once for three days, and a second time for one week. Only one day after the second blocking it was blocked again for one month, without me actually posting anything during that one day. My “sin”? Apparently, the monarchists have been angry about my recent investigative report in which I reviewed, based on credible documents, the track record of Reza Pahlavi over the past 40 years—demonstrating that, despite what he claims, he wants to restore monarchy in Iran with the help of foreign powers. In the latest episode, after I shared a piece by Gary Sick that pointed out how the attacks on Saudi oil installations meant that the era of “one-way pain is over,” Facebook blocked the post almost immediately, and this was an analysis by a respected national security expert who worked for two administrations. I wrote to Facebook saying that, as a long-time professor in a major university, I have never ever advocated violence, racism, war, discrimination, and bigotry, or used profanity or insult against anyone. So, I asked, what is it that I have posted that is against “the community standards”? I received no response.
Numerous other people have told me the same story. Their Facebook pages have been blocked repeatedly on false reports, without Facebook telling them what the objectionable posts have been. One wrote, “Over the past seven months my page has been blocked five times, each time for one month, because I criticized Saudi Arabia’s regime.” Another friend wrote, “I have been blocked twice recently. My friend’s page is blocked for one month, and only a day or two after it is unblocked, it is blocked again for another month, and this has happened repeatedly.” The Facebook pages of five leftist friends, whose pages are read widely and who oppose war and sanctions against Iran, have been blocked repeatedly over the past several months. One of them wrote, “My page has been blocked three times in one month.” He even named two monarchists who had threatened to try to get his page blocked. Another friend wrote, “over the past two years, my Facebook page has been blocked multiple times, each time only two or three days after becoming unblocked. The reason is that in one post I criticized Iranian secessionists and their Western masters.” Yet another friend wrote, “In my post for one of my latest poems I used a picture of a starving Yemeni mother and child, but Facebook blocked it. Apparently, Facebook thinks that the war crimes that Saudi Arabia commits in Yemen should not be publicized.”
Iran’s fake opposition in exile has tried to silence its critics, while it claims that it supports human rights and democracy for the Iranian people. By blocking those who oppose war and economic sanctions against Iran, Facebook has in effect allied itself with the fake opposition, supporting their advocacy of economic sanctions, war, and “maximum pressure” on the Iranian people inside Iran.
Muhammad Sahimi is a Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.