The MEK’s disinformation primarily targeted right-of-center outlets receptive to a hawkish line against Iran
Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) holds a statement signed by 31 U.S. dignitaries and former officials in support of the NCRI and its fight for freedom in Iran on July 17, 2020, in Ashraf-3, Albania. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (LED screen) one of the signatories, presents it to Ms. Rajavi. (Photo by Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
There is at least one more foreign policy opinion writer from the Mujahideen-eKhalq (MEK) whose existence is dubious, based on a study by a social media analyst and statements from a defector from the group. Amir Basiri, who contributed to Forbes 9 times, the Washington Examiner 52 times, OpenDemocracy, Algemeiner, and The Hill once also appears to be a fabrication.
The MEK is an Iranian exile group for which John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, and other foreign policy luminaries have given paid speeches. Dems like Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean have also spoken on their behalf. But the group has American blood on its hands, has been accused of practicing forced sterilization, and their belief system has been described as a mixture of Marxism and Islamism. Its supporters claim they, and their front group the National Council of Resistance of Iran, are a sort of government-in-exile, despite nearly nonexistent support for the group within Iran. They also have waged a substantial disinformation campaign in the Western press, in particular targeting conservative media.
“Amir Basiri and Heshmat Alavi are two fake accounts,” Hassan Heyrani, an MEK defector told TAC. “At Camp Liberty, near the BIAP airport in Iraq, I was in the political unit of the organization with some of the persons who grew up in America and Canada. We worked as a team to write the articles analyzing the Iranian regime. The MEK put them in The Washington Post and all the newspapers in Western countries.”
Basiri’s op-eds focus on the need for regime change in Iran which he claimed is “within reach.” The thrust of Basiri’s writing – last placed at the Examiner in October of 2018 – is to encourage American readers to take an interest and sympathize with the plight of Iranian protesters and dissidents. Basiri consistently argued against the Iran nuclear deal, downplayed terrorism against Iran, called for tougher sanctions as a method of regime change and highlighted the necessity of Trump working with the Iranian opposition.
“We are currently looking into the matter, so I won’t comment on this specific byline,” Philip Klein, Executive Editor and Commentary Editor of the Washington Examiner told TAC. “But I will say that we have recently instituted more rigorous vetting of outside contributors, including but not limited to asking for photo identification if necessary. We are especially on guard when it comes to unsolicited foreign policy commentary.”
A request for comment from OpenDemocracy, a site greatly concerned about disinformation campaigns, has not been returned as of press time. Basiri’s articles on Forbes are no longer online. (Update: Julian Richards, managing editor of OpenDemocracy, writes, “This article was submitted to us through our normal process and our editor corresponded with Amir Basiri about the text. In light of the allegations you have made, we have removed the article text from our site for the time being and I have written to the email address that Amir Basiri used to ask for confirmation of his identity.”)
The list of MEK disinformation tactics also includes fake online since-deleted sites such as PersiaNow and ArabEye and questionable sites such as Iran Focus whose domain was formerly registered under the name of an NCRI spokesperson and is now anonymously held.
MEK’s recent influence campaign on Facebook spearheaded by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) was recently reported on last year by Lachlan Markey at the Daily Beast. Markey explained how NCRI lobbyist Soheila Aligholi Mayelzadeh has helped place paid ads on Facebook reaching between 500,000 to 1.4 million users as part of the campaign to sway US public opinion in favor of MEK and intervention in Iran.
The list of outright fakes recently in the realm of foreign policy analysis is significant: there is the apparent Emirati fabrication Raphael Badani to MEK sock puppet Alavi, first revealed by The Intercept, to deepfake non-existent anti-Palestinian activist Oliver Taylor, whose work was placed at highly-respected publications in the United States and Israel.
As Adam Rawnsley wrote for the Daily Beast, “Badani is part of a network of at least 19 fake personas that has spent the past year placing more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications. The articles heaped praise on the United Arab Emirates and advocated for a tougher approach to Qatar, Turkey, Iran and its proxy groups in Iraq and Lebanon.”
Geoff Golberg is the founder of Social Forensics, which tracks and monitors online social media networks and disinformation campaigns. Golberg’s run-in and exposure of various pro-MEK personas, sock puppets and boosters came just prior to his Twitter suspension in July of 2019, the official reason for which was calling an account he believed to be fake and interfering in Canada’s elections a “moron.”
“Rather than suspending accounts that blatantly violate Twitter Rules, Dorsey instead opted to silence my voice. Specific to Iranian-focused platform manipulation, along with The Intercept, I helped out ‘Heshmat Alavi’ as a sockpuppet propaganda operation run by the MEK. Remarkably, despite initially suspending the fake account, ‘Heshmat Alavi’ has been reinstated by Twitter and continues to disseminate propaganda,” Golberg said, adding that Basiri – whose account is currently suspended by Twitter – is another fake persona which has been on his radar for some time. He produced the following graphic demonstrating the interconnectedness of the two accounts:
Golberg said he knows little of geopolitics or political aspects and was led to investigate sock puppet accounts fomenting war with Iran because he noticed many oddities about their networks, followers and tweeting patterns. His further research and analysis led him down a rabbit hole of connections and resulted in death threats, mass reporting of his account and accusations that he sympathized with the Ayatollah’s regime.
Rather than the hype over Russian bots, the real danger on platforms like Twitter is fake accounts and troll farm accounts which amplify hashtags, spread lies and bolster the desired propaganda of their paymaster, Golberg says.
“Despite media coverage that tends to focus on ‘bots,’ which simply means fully-automated accounts, Twitter’s much larger problem is actually fake accounts. There are more than 100K fake accounts that exist solely to create the illusion of widespread sentiment that the US should go to war with Iran,” Golberg told TAC, adding, “Take ‘Sheldon,’ @patrick_jane77, for example, an account that reflects having nearly 120K Followers. Very few of the account’s Followers are authentic accounts, yet given Twitter refuses to enforce their own rules, it is easy to mistake “Sheldon” for being a popular account. Twitter’s entire platform is propped up by misleading or inflated Followers/Following counts. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, has built a house of cards and continues to commit ad fraud at a massive scale.”
Golberg sued Twitter earlier this year, alleging that the platform engaged in “deceptive practices” and hasn’t stood by its own terms of service.
Accusations from MEK supporter Hanif Jazayeri that The American Conservative itself and senior editor Daniel Larison act as a mouthpiece for the mullahs are part of a broader campaign aimed at maligning the reputation and integrity of anyone who opposes regime change in Iran. Tweets calling for investigations of TAC also came from noted MEK sock puppet Alavi, MEK spokesman Shahin Gobadi and NCRI’s Ali Safavi.
A barrage of accounts retweeted Jazayeri’s accusations, many with only a few followers and which solely tweet boosting the MEK and supporting regime change in Iran.
It’s worth noting that Heshmat Alavi was following Amir Basiri prior to his suspension, as were others closely connected to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies such as Jerusalem Post Iran hawk Seth Frantzman, @sfrantzman, Jazayeri and a number of other pro-MEK shills. It is a hall of mirrors amplifying the case for war with Iran, and the ad money from NCRI and pro-MEK accounts seems to have dampened Twitter’s desire to crack down. A request for comment from Twitter was not returned as of press time.
As a matter of journalistic ethics any organization engaging in systematic dishonesty like this has provided a very good reason to blacklist them. Failing to do so will encourage other foreign interests to do the same in the future, so conservative publishers should decline all content and interviews from the MEK in the future. This is not a matter of foreign policy differences: if you wish to see the U.S. pursue regime change in Iran, the MEK does not help make that case. Any publishers or think tanks who are aware of this dishonesty and still treat them like a legitimate opposition group should be considered part of a campaign not wholly different from the last time we were lied into a Mideast war.
Arthur Bloom is the managing editor of TAC.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.
Arthur Bloom is editor of The American Conservative online.