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Public Enemy: Islamic Republic’s Coronavirus Disinformation


Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), speaks during the FDD's National Security Summit in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, as he hosts a conversation with national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminajad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have done an investigation of the Iranian regime’s disinformation campaign to minimize the real impact of the coronavirus pandemic and blame the United States for their failures in confronting the health crisis.
A campaign designed for internal and external audiences, following a very clear objective: Sanctify the regime for the insiders and victimize it for the outsiders. A wide network of people and tools are at work here to purify China, the source of the virus; to point the finger of blame at the U.S.
Samira Gharaei from Radio Farda interviewed Mark Dubowitz on this extensive investigation and its findings.

Radio Farda: What you've done is an extensive investigation focusing very much on every piece of news happening in Iran since the spread of the coronavirus. In your opinion every angle of the Islamic Republic's management should be taken under criticism more than others.

Dubowitz: So, in a study my colleague Saeed Ghasseminejad and I focused on specifically the COVID-19 disinformation campaign that the Islamic Republic ran. And as your listeners know, Iran is the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East. And certainly governments throughout the world have struggled to address the health crisis. But the clerical regime in Iran really made a bad situation worse by concealing the virus in the population, lying about its gravity and consequences and holding large scale public events that spread the malady throughout the country. So, we really wanted to focus on how the regime used at global disinformation campaign to deflect attention from its own malpractice.

Radio Farda: Can you please elaborate on the concept of misinformation as distinct from disinformation? What is exactly this misinformation campaign the Islamic Republic started?

Dubowitz: Misinformation really is when facts are mistakenly revealed as opposed to disinformation, which really involves a concerted effort on the part of the regime to again deflect attention in this case accusing the United States of conducting biological warfare, publishing misleading and distorted public health data, exaggerating the regime’s achievements and policy blaming sanctions for its own mismanagement of a pandemic. So, the disinformation campaign is a deliberate, orchestrated, systematic campaign of lies and exaggeration and of concealment, in order to mislead Iranian people, as well as the global community.

Radio Farda: You've divided the target audience of this campaign into domestic and international. Can you elaborate with examples what was being fed to each audience by the Islamic Republic's propaganda machine?

Dubowitz: Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine domestically was really focused on blaming the United States for the pandemic. Protecting China, defending China so that the Iranian people wouldn't blame China which is a very important strategic partner for the regime. Really deflecting responsibility from the regime’s decision to conceal the virus to hold celebrations, public celebrations of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and as well hold parliamentary elections, despite the fact that the government knew that they were facing a major pandemic so it very much focused domestically on those ideas. Globally, the thrust of the campaign which was about sanctions and about blaming U.S. sanctions for the inability of the regime to handle the pandemic, very much focused on Europe and in the United States tried to undermine the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign and getting sanctions lifted, using the pandemic as, as a pretext.

Radio Farda: FDD always insists on the people, Iranian people being on the opposite side of the government and suffering from its actions. So, let's talk about the people. What do you think about their role in combating the virus and in what ways they were successful in your opinion and in what ways they failed?

Dubowitz: Well, the Iranian people certainly suffered from the pandemic in very severe ways. They always showed a lot of courage in managing the health crisis and were doing so at a time when the regime was not being honest. It was publishing false information. was lying to its own people about the outbreak, was providing distorted public health data and was looking for any excuse to keep the economy open and Iran's borders open to trade and travel. The Iranian people really were dealing with a severe crisis, both a health crisis and a continuing crisis of legitimacy and competence on behalf of the regime, which obviously did not have either the ability or the determination or the honesty to really address what was such a terrible health crisis.

Radio Farda: How do you analyze the presence of the military forces at the beginning of combating the virus because what we witnessed was a very huge presence of Basij and IRGC in the streets. disinfecting the streets, ATMs this and that, what do you think about that presence? Exactly after the time we witnessed big protests last autumn in Iran. Do you think somehow it made the regime look better internally?

Dubowitz: No, I don't think so. The regime denied the existence of an outbreak until about February 19 of 2020. In fact, on January 31 of this year, regime officials were still claiming that there were no COVID-19 patients. And then, you know, the government mobilized the security and intelligence forces to aggressively target and to arrest whistleblowers who were warning about Iran’s outbreak, and the regime had announced that it had arrested 3,600 Iranians for spreading rumors about the coronavirus outbreak. So, at that point, I think the Iranian people no longer trusted the regime and certainly didn't trust the security forces. The government tried to rebound from this display of incompetence and mendacity by then deploying the Basij, to try and get the health crisis under control. But I think at that point, you know, the Iranian people had really had enough of these security forces and they've been involved, obviously, in suppressing the massive protests that took place from mid-November, last year to January of this year, which were sparked by the government's decision to cut the fuel subsidies. And the Iranian leadership and the security forces reportedly responded to those protests by killing over 1,500 protesters. The Iranian people are used to seeing a regime that is engaged in massive repression and security forces that don't hold their health and their well-being as a priority.

Radio Farda: Let's focus a little bit on the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Mr. Javad Zarif. In particular, do you think they had a role in this disinformation campaign?

Dubowitz: Yes. Foreign Minister Zarif and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have played a very important role. Iran leaders obviously lie to their own people. They lie on international forum. They lie through traditional social media to a global audience and the clerical regime has invested heavily, billions of dollars in building a disinformation machine at home and abroad. And the key institutions that conduct the disinformation and influence operations are the MFA, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic guidance. IRIB, IRGC and a number of other organizations such as the Islamic Development Organization, Al-Mustafa International University, and the Islamic Propaganda Office of Qom Seminary. Mr. Zarif, the MFA and particularly the public diplomacy division in the MFA are active on the disinformation campaign. They're very much the first gatekeeper for determining whether foreigners, including journalists can visit Iran and the conditions of their stay. And even though Mr. Zarif, cast himself as a reasonable diplomat, who's different from the regimes religious zealots, and has spent, you know, decades cultivating these personal relationships with Western journalists and think tankers and others. The Iranian people know Mr. Zarif, is part of the regime, the spokesman for the routine, and he's responsible for the regime's disinformation and spreading the lies and mendacity. So, he and Abass Mousavi, the MFA spokesman, The Public Diplomacy divisions play a very important role in running a large global propaganda campaign.

Radio Farda: At the end, I just want to ask you about the new wave of coronavirus in Iran. As you know, currently Iranians are facing another wave and we have more than 2,000 infections daily. How much of this do you think it's due to the Islamic Republic mismanagement and disinformation campaign?

Dubowitz: This is obviously a global pandemic. Many countries, including the United States are struggling to get a handle on this and the importance of dealing with this pandemic is to address the issues factually to provide proper advice to get proper health professionals mobilized to address it, to engage in quarantines and social distancing. A lot of countries are struggling with this but I think what's making it more difficult for Islamic Republic is the unwillingness of the regime to really acknowledge some basic facts about this pandemic, its origins in Iran, the fact that Iran became a super spreader of the COVID-19 throughout the Middle East, infecting many countries, and still an unwillingness for Iranian government officials to really address effectively and responsibly, the severity of the crisis.

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    Samira Gharaei

    Samira Gharaei is a journalist working at Radio Farda, covering political news. She worked in various Iranian newspapers for 10 years before she joined Radio Farda.

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