Part of Iran's success in pursuing the Islamic Republic's aggressively expansionist agenda rests in relative impunity, explained by the recalcitrance of Western societies to take a hardline in pushing back against Iran's advances. The success of Iran and her proxies in achieving this benefit of the doubt can be explained largely through Iran's unparalleled information warfare mechanism it uses to blind and seduce the United States and European Union, and which rests on two pillars: the use of the Western education system, and popular appeal. Iran's involvement in Western society for many decades has exposed it to the workings of its system in every detail – from the structure and expectations of academic findings and conference, to the sort of content that appeals to the mind of political and academic elites, to the ability to manipulate interests and ideologically friendly factions through the use of generous funding and donation to various studies and causes.
A recent poll, conducted by Ebrahim Mohseni, in his capacity as the Research Assistant at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies, and discussed at a recent event titled "Iranian Public Opinion After the Protests", is a perfect illustration of a pattern, which is evident in any use of respectable educational institution by the Iranian regime. The results of the poll were published in Al-Monitor, deliberately focusing on one of the items (Trump's comments) that best plays into the narrative, which is being introduced into popular discourse through analysts, "experts", and academics. Al Monitor was founded by a Syrian American billionaire Jamal Daniel, and despite offering a seeming diversity of voices, has maintained a line friendly to Iran's Syrian proxy Assad, while also leaning in Iran's and Qatar's favor in any dispute or political issue.
The writer of the article, Barbara Slavin, was also a participant in the above-mentioned event. She is a journalist, who is involved in The Atlantic Institute's Future of Iran project, which promotes the improvement of JCPOA with an agenda to avoid US withdrawal from Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Another member of the illustrious list of luminaries of that project is none other than Trita Parsi, the executive director of NIAC, a pro-regime lobby group masquerading as a human rights not-for-profit organization, which closely advised the Obama administration about the nuclear deal. In reality, the organization is a propaganda arm of the regime, which had previously unsuccessfully sued a journalist on defamatory grounds for exposing its various violations, and in the course of the trial and appeal was found to be in contempt of the court by the judge, lying about the extent of its political lobbying, suppressing and attempting to destroy documents, and prevaricating on assorted matters related to its activity. If one takes a look at the long and diverse list of foreign and domestic government and private donors, one will not be surprised to see that some of them have made it into the membership of this project.
Before looking to the substance of the poll and the event and how precisely it served Iran's agenda, let's take a look at the participants. Mr. Mohseni, who conducted this poll, for instance is currently affiliated with the faculty of the University of Tehran. In theory, that should not preclude him from completely objective and scientific inquiry into sociological studies of Iranian population. In reality, however, he is far from an unbiased source. I have talked to a former student from University of Tehran, who is currently a political analyst and theorist in the United States, known to me and speaking on condition of anonymity, well familiar with the university programming and the political dynamics of various chairs there. " Some time in the early 2000s, certain elements in Tehran University decided to openly use the academy for pro-regime political propaganda." – he says, further noting: "They first used the academic venues like classes, conferences and publications to do that. However, they later realized that within the regular academia there was resistance towards what they wanted to do. So they changed tactics. They established the American Studies College in the premises of Tehran University's Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures."
But what accounted for the success of these propagandists who have used the academy with the political intent? The former University of Tehran student and current analyst elaborated as follows:
"What they did there was to reverse-engineer Western political and critical theories against the West. It was pointedly anti-American. They later established the larger World Studies College in the same place. One of the tasks of these institutes is to create false polls in favor of the regime. They both do it in Iran and abroad."
Mohseni, and others like him, he says, are employees of the same organizations. In fact, he adds, "They are sent here and financially and media-wise supported to advertise for the regime. They create the poll in Tehran, make it public here, and then advertise it in Tehran for the people!" In other words, according to this source, the poll in question was most likely fictional. We may go as far as to surmise that no one was actually polled, but rather, fabricated results were first presented to the American public, and then published in the Iranian media, as is the norm to do in such cases. (I have reached out to Mohseni for comment on his methodology and assumptions, but he so far has not responded). The former student suffered greatly for trying to expose this strategy by the regime to infiltrate Iranian universities, while he was still there. He was initially offered to be involved in similar activities, but refused, and as a result was prevented from teaching, finishing his PhD program, or publishing. He was constantly harassed, and as a result of pressure, eventually had to leave the country to pursue his studies.
Additionally, Mohseni is affiliated with Syed Mohammed Marandi, who "where he strongly supported the policies of the Islamic Republic with regard to its nuclear program and the pacification of the Iranian domestic demonstrations following the presidential elections of 2009. Recently, he has most frequently appeared on Russia Today to defend the position of the Islamic Republic against a possible joint American-Israeli airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities". There is evidence of Mohseni's ideological proximity to Marandi and other regime elements. In 2016, University of Tehran's Iranian World Studies Association held an anti-American conference organized by the Basij, the street thugs in charge of internal order and suppression of dissent. Mohseni was a speaker.
What about the others? Kelsey Davenport, the Director of the Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, took a sympathetic position at the regime's illegal ballistic missile program, in conflict with her seeming professional position, claiming that the regime was only doing so because of the complete US embargo on arms from which it has suffered (and in directly implying that it needs to protect itself from its regional allies). The other participants downplayed Iran's past ballistic missile works, and dismissed the threats of such activity due to the observation that Iran has not conducted any public ballistic missile tests in many months.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is the founder of Europe-Iran forum, and is an advocate of the position that IRGC may have some legitimate role to play in the Iranian economy and that President Trump's comments and actions, designating IRGC as a terrorist organization, are problematic. The panel was not very balanced in questioning the results of the poll, which, among other things, concluded that most of the 1000-person poll sample finds President Trump's position anti-Iranian due to his critical comments targeting the regime's arrests of protesters and the crackdown on communications, an increase in anti-American attitudes among civilians, and so forth. More people, Mohseni further claims, are blaming foreign sanctions on deterioration in the economy than in 2015.
If accurate, of course, these observations would provide a rather pessimistic view on Iranian society, and its relationship with the regime. In fact, according to the questions presented to the poll, there were only two options for dissastisfaction with the economy: Foreign sanctions or government mishandling of the economy and corruption. Not one word was presented about Iran's support for terrorism, aggression, or human rights violations. That in itself shows the bias of this poll, as it is presented, but given the previous background, there is no reason to believe the poll was ever conducted. Towards the end, one of the questions asked about whether any of the non-Persian nations, such as the Kurds living largely in the periphery (where it is very difficult to reach for pollsters) were asked about their views on any of these issues. Mohseni's response was that with the exception of the Azeris, these ethnic populations were too insignificant to poll separately, and as for Azeris, the pollsters would have needed a much bigger sample size to make an independent assessment significant.
To precipitate the natural question on whether such surprising results could reflect the fact that the people being polled were afraid of government surveillance and could not answer truthfully even on the phone, Mohseni pointed out that the response rate (75-85%) percent, which is significantly higher than with the Western audiences, and that the responders were free to hang up or to skip certain questions. Indeed the discussion of the poll was as one sided as the poll itself. There was no criticism of the methodology which did little to reflect Iran's significant and diverse population, nor to question what the US should do to engage with the Iranian public effectively, given the widespread censorship and mass arrests of protesters. Rather, there was significant criticism of sanctions as an ineffective tool of diplomacy, favorable discussion of the French and other European countries that are looking to create separate banking arrangements with Iran, based in Euro, that would go around the restrictions of the nuclear deal, and no suggestions for the government to stop raiding people's pension plans and the Treasury to facilitate terrorism. Rather, the discussants concluded, even a minor improvement in people's financial situation, will draw them closer to the government.
The reader should not come away thinking, however, that this biased and unscientific event, which was, nevertheless, lauded by the audience and has the full legitimacy and recognition of a major US university, is somehow unique. On the contrary, it is but one in a series of events where major US universities recognized and promoted pro-regime views and individuals, despite widespread criticism of human rights supporters and legitimate Iranian dissidents of all backgrounds. Recently, in fact, Harvard University recognized a pro-regime blogger, Hossein Derakshan, who was made a fellow in the Kennedy School. Sohrab Amari discusses at length Derkshan's long record of pro-regime apologia, including his embrace of the IRGC, and his deplorable history of accusing noteworthy Iranian dissidents of spying for the US, just as they were imprisoned by the regime. Princeton University is a home to Seyed Hossain Mousavian, the notorious regime Intelligence figure, the Director of Operations expelled from Germany for his connections to the assassination of four Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. He is also a regular contributor on Iran-related topic to the respected foreign policy outlet Lobelog.
There is no shortage of such academics, influencers, pundits, analysts, and pro-regime sympathizers affecting the discourse in the direction of Iran. Iranian proxies likewise enjoy the same degree of influence. Doublespeak has become the favorite method of the regime and its allies to win friends and influence people in the West. Qatar's effective victory in the propaganda war against the anti-Terrorist Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt), has been greatly facilitated by this method of discourse., which involved employing sophisticated lobby firms, buying off the media, employing somewhat unwitting agents of influence – well known analysts, pundits, and opiniomakers from assorted circles, and whitewashing its image in various ways. The best tactic Iran and her proxies have employed has been disinformation. Whether conducting fictional polls that cannot possibly be independently verified or making vague claims that are supported by other potential agents of influence (and due to the classified nature of real professionals cannot be fully disputed in public), such as that Qatar no longer supports Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and perhaps never did – these actors sow just enough confusion in the mind of the public and in the political circles to make it not worthwhile probe any further.
The best part for Iran and her proxies, however, is that while they generously expend money towards promoting their agenda, they utilize readily available Western resources against the West, effectively causing the United States to fight herself – all while serving Iran, Qatar, and anyone else who benefits from that relationship. Step one is to focus the discourse on unverifiable claims, to the exclusion of much greater and easily verifiable claims, such as that Iran,, Qatar, and Turkey are aggressively aligned against interests of the other Gulf States and the United States, and are acting in concern to spread malignant influence throughout Africa and other regions. Step two is to steep the discourse in moral relativism. For instance, in the above mentioned poll, President Trump's anti-regime comments are equated, with no basis or evidence, to having a position against the Iranian people.
Similarly, pro-Qatar influencers effectively equate Saudi Arabia with Iran in their articles, even though there is only only anti-Western aggressor (and its financier), and that aggressor is in Tehran. But focusing on Saudi internal matters and efforts to refute Qatari propaganda distracts from the larger reality of which country actually presents immediate threats, and makes it easy for Westerners to form inaccurate opinions, while ignoring more important substantive evidence. Psychologically, this method is very effective. (If both Qatar and Saudi Arabia once funded terrorists, and Qatar has built all these nice American universities and said that it no longer funds terrorists and invites all these nice people who all say it no longer funds terrorists, and Saudi Arabia does not have anyone say anything nice about it, then obviously this fight is at the very least none of our concern, and more like just a disingenuous attempt to attack a little country while covering up what Saudi Arabia is actually doing). W hat's missing? Iran. Iran has managed to get everyone weighing in on the Gulf Crisis, while it is effectively waging a war of aggression all over the Middle East, and likewise, with Qatar's help, makes significant gains in Africa, all the while funding the very terrorists Qatar claims it's no longer funding... but then, what is it doing aligning with Iran who IS funding them?
Similar doublespeak is everywhere. Although many think this brouhaha is new and reactionary to the Saudi accusations, in reality, Qatar disingenuously claimed it was not funding Muslim Brotherhood as far back as 2015, while continuing to host al-Qaradawi, and host send money to Hamas for building terrorist tunnels. Exactly one retired brigadier general claimed that Qatar's aid to Gaza has been legitimate, but provided no evidence. What's more likely – t hat Qatar, aligned with a country just recently caught in providing direct aid – had never done anything of that sort, or that they are temporarily letting Iran handling it directly while winning important PR battles against Iran's enemies? Similarly, Qatar, much to the concern of the public, has been funding K-12 Arabic language programs in the US, while showing evidence of having changedin its position on extremism or interpretations of religion most conducive to jihadists.
There is a much wider context for Iran's successful operations than one poll. There is a pattern to creating favorable opinions in the United States, and Iran knows how to take full advantage of them. Now that it is somewhat on defensive with respect to its nuclear and ballistic programs, sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights violation, it is utilizing the plethora of available Weapons of Mass Distraction to divert attention, shift blame, sow confusion, and whitewash itself. Iran's arsenal includes using proxy states to embroil its adversaries in interminable and losing PR battles (hard to win, because of inherent advantages Iran has knowing the US turf), taking advantage of funding opportunities, ideological fellow travelers, and corruption in the US policy and academic circles to hoodwink the public through fake studies and opinionshifting events and conferences, and using the tunnel vision, ignorance, biases, and bureaucratic shortcomings of the US foreign policy and government elites to load the dice.
What should the counter-Iran alliance do in response? First, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and others should remove their very generous funding of institutions like the Atlantic Institute, which are actively sponsoring events inimical to the interests of these countries, despite these very generous donations, and towards more neutral organizations, run jointly with well respected entities towards exposing Iranian methods of influence and propaganda. Second, rather than mirroring Qatari and Iranian PR methods in a significantly less effective ways, these countries should utilize this opportunity to break away from past associations, and distinguish themselves by funding the full and more liberal spectrum of Middle East and Islamic Studies in the West, counteracting the dangerous effect of Iranian and Qatari funding of extremism, with something tolerant, life-affirming, and acceptable to Western values and new, much more promising partnerships.
Third, they should move away from paying off lobbyists who are merely siphoning off these donations into a black hole of their own pockets, and focus on more effective forms of educating the public opinion: diverse, multi-faceted conferences, organized jointly, with other allies, and exposing threats that will be hard to deny, refocusing the discourse on the threat of Iran's expansionism, rather than getting bogged down in fighting the proxies, and work with the United States to expose Iranian threats in ways that would be effective in the United States, not just in the Middle East. The US, for its own part, should not rely on lobbyists in trying to get to the bottom of serious dilemmas, but rather, should conduct impartial Congressional hearings as to Qatar, Iran, and others. It should also work to expose foreign influence that is inimical to US interests on campuses, and not only cut US government funding from such institutions, but counteract these effects financially, educationally, and if necessary, legally. However, in edition to the Muslim Brotherhood's influence, it should also focus on Iran and her proxies.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. To counteract Iran, expose its methods, expose its assets, expose its agendas, in all their forms.