Friday , 22 September 2023

The Islamic Republic’s Psychological Warfare Against the Opposition (1)

Iranwire – Psychological warfare, known by a number of names including psychological operations and “psy ops,” is one of the oldest tactics employed in wars. Such tactics are aimed at undermining the enemy’s morale and its will to fight or resist and, sometimes, at persuading the enemy to change its position. Another kind of psy-ops is propaganda aimed at strengthening the morale and the resolve of allies or one’s own forces. Efforts to manipulate the minds of prisoners of war and political prisoners are also part of psychological warfare.

In this two-part report, we examine how the Islamic Republic wages psychological warfare against its opponents, which tools it uses and whether it observes any red lines in its psychological operations.


It might come as a surprise, but many historians believe that the Persian kings of the Achaemenid empire were the first to have initiated the use of effective psychological warfare. As one historian writes, “the Persians were absolute masters at creating and disseminating propaganda in both words and pictures.” According to these historians, Cyrus the Great very effectively directed propaganda at Babylonians who wanted to be saved from the tyranny of King Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king. And, in the battle of Pelusium, in 525 BC, the Persian king Cambyses II used cats, considered as sacred by the ancient Egyptians, to protect his army against Egyptian archers.

History aside, psy ops have been at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s strategy of suppression and control since the beginning of its rule. Below, we examine the evolution of psychological war tactics used by the Islamic Republic against its opponents, especially during the nationwide protests that started in 2022.

Two Examples of the Campaign to Spread Lies and Fake News

Attacking the opposition through hate-mongering campaigns by spreading fake information, brainwashing Iranians by disseminating made-up tales about civil society, creating phony political groups aimed at spreading suspicion and creating divisions within its political opponents and extracting forced and false confessions from prominent opposition figures to undermine the morale of civil society — these have been only a small part of the tactics used by the Islamic Republic in its psychological warfare during the past decades.

The most important psy op tactic used by the Islamic Republic against the opposition is perhaps the spread of lies and the creation of tales that dehumanize its opponents. These fables try to portray these opponents as ruthless, immoral, licentious, corrupt and untrustworthy creatures. Those who remember the first decade of the Islamic Republic regime recall weird stories about prominent political opposition figures, writers, journalists and even exiled singers that occasionally spread in schools, such as the story of this opposition writer who was sleeping in the streets because of his drug addiction or the story of this singer in Los Angeles who became a porn actor. These totally fabricated rumors spread from mouth to mouth, and many people believed them exactly because they were so far-fetched and unbelievable.

The Islamic Republic’s campaign of spreading lies also consists in using opponents who had become captives of the government. False confessions that were extracted from political leaders using harsh torture techniques and were broadcast on TV and radio endorsed previous fables fabricated by the government, made them more believable for some in society and undermined the morale of others who witnessed their political leaders falling apart in front of the camera.

As time went by, these fabricated tales have become more and more complex and far-reaching. In this part of our report, we go over a few examples showing how the government tries to make lies more credible by repeating them endlessly.

The Kurds and the Myth of Beheadings

One of the first psychological warfare campaigns by the Islamic Republic was launched against the Kurds. In 1979, a few days before Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the attack on the city of Paveh as part of a bloody crackdown on Iran’s Kurdistan region, Iranian radio and TV, which were under total control of the Khomeini faithful, extensively spread rumors about crimes and atrocities committed by armed Kurdish parties, including stories about the beheading of members of the Revolutionary Guards.

These rumors served as a preamble to the massacre of people in Kurdistan and were reused to crush the Kurds again and again. Movies such as Kani-Manga by Seifollah Dad, Shiler Valley Saga by Ahmad Hassani Moghaddam and Che by  Ebrahim Hatamikia, which were custom-made for the military and security agencies, tried to portray the Kurds as violent, ruthless and inhumane.

The Islamic Republic has not offered any credible evidence to support these claims and has repeatedly fabricated evidence to convince the public of their veracity – sometimes in a very hilarious way.

Only a few weeks after the execution of Ramin Hossein Panahi, an Iranian Kurd, in the summer of 2018, the judiciary’s official news agency Mizan published an article to defend the execution, titled “Pictures of actions by the terrorist colleagues of Ramin Hossein Panahi: Komalah [a Kurdish opposition party] means beheading by mosaic.” The article is illustrated by six pictures: the logo of Komalah and three pictures of armed members of the party next to two shocking pictures.

One of these pictures, presented as evidence for “crimes” committed by Komalah, shows the severed heads of eight men. The other one is a picture of the bloody, severed head of a man. These pictures have been used repeatedly on different occasions, whenever there has been a need to launch psy-ops against the Kurds or Kurdish political parties, by hundreds of different websites, including official news agencies affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) such as Young Journalists Club and Bultan News and by the Defense Ministry’s official news agency DEFA Press.

But are these pictures real and do they truly prove crimes committed by the Komalah Party?

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent graphic images)

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent graphic images)

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent graphic images)

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent graphic images)

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent graphic images)

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent graphic images)

These pictures were first published on August 3, 2013, on the website Mashregh News, which is affiliated with the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards, by pasting together other pictures, under the title “A History of Independence-Seeking in Kurdistan: From Political Demands to Armed Struggle.”

The picture showing the severed heads of eight men was first published in 2009 in a weblog by Afghan and Pakistani Shias.

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent, graphic images)

(Note: Parts of this picture have been blurred because of violent, graphic images)

But the more important point is that this picture has nothing to do with Iran or with the Kurds. The text, in English and Pashto, accompanying the picture states, “These innocent Shias were beheaded on June 19, 2008, in Pir Qayyum region by local Taliban under the command of Kornal Majid and Ataollah Rahman after an attack on a truck.”

So, this picture actually shows the severed heads of eight members of a tribe in Pakistan that were killed during a clash between tribes in a border area of Pakistan, as it was also reported by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRANA).

The other picture is a still from a shocking video showing the beheading of a Pakistani citizen by the Taliban on September 12, 2005, published in March 2007 by a famous weblog on the Jawa Report that is dedicated to reporting crimes committed by extreme Islamists. (Warning: The pictures in the report are extremely shocking.)

The Islamic Republic’s Psychological Warfare Against the Opposition (1)
(Note: This picture has been blurred because of violent graphic content)

(Note: This picture has been blurred because of violent graphic content)

Nevertheless, these unrelated images have been published time and again by the Islamic Republic’s government-affiliated media outlets, including the official news agency of the Ministry of Defense and the judiciary’s Mizan news agency, as “evidence of crimes committed by the Komalah Party” to justify mass executions of Kurds. Operators of this campaign of fake news did not even hide or erase the words on these pictures. The same news agency recently released a video of forced confessions of Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mir-Hashemi and Saeed Yaqoubi, three men who were executed on May 29, to prove they had fired guns at the security forces.

However, in an audio file leaked from the prison, Majid Kazemi clearly states that he was subjected to repeated torture to force him into confessions which resulted in his death sentence.

The video that was broadcast by state TV is only 4 minutes and 16 seconds long, but it has been edited 53 times to include images from the night of the incident, the defendants’ accusations against each other, the moment of their arrest and the reconstruction of the so-called crime scene.

What is more, the clip contains several errors. For instance, it claims to show the moment when one of the defendants was arrested by agents of Isfahan’s Sahib Al-Zaman Corps. However, the images clearly show that the defendant’s hands are tied behind his back.

Fake news, lies and distorted pictures published by the propaganda outlets of the regime often become subjects of ridicule and laughter and put the government to shame, but the perpetrators of these lies suffer no legal consequences because, practically, what the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei means by his “Enlightenment Jihad” are these same clumsy activities to deceive the less-educated members of society so that, perhaps, the government can convince a small group of the people that its crimes have been justified.

However, in contrast with these ham-handed campaigns of fake news, there is indisputable evidence of the role of government agents in the crimes and savagery that the regime attributes to its opponents. One example is the massacre of the villagers of Qarna in Kurdistan, one of the most documented examples of savage massacres of civilians by the Revolutionary Guards and the militias loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini.

The attack by the paramilitary forces based in Naqadeh, in Western Azerbaijan, on the village of Qarna took place on September 2, 1979, only two weeks after Khomeini’s speech against Kurdish parties at the Assembly of Experts. In this attack, 45 villagers were massacred by the Revolutionary Guards, the gendarmerie and militias. They even shot the domestic animals in the village.

According to the testimony of a gendarmerie officer who visited the area after the massacre, published by the newspaper Islamic Republic on February 1, 1981, both the people and the animals were slaughtered alike: “In the area around the village of Qarna, everything was like a film caught in freeze-frame. We saw a tractor driver motionless behind his wheel. A few dozen sheep were lying next to each other on the side of the highway. A dog was stretched out, motionless, in front of a house.”

After 18 Kurdish religious leaders sent an urgent telegram to Ayatollah Khomeini protesting his call for mobilization against the Kurds. Khomeini, concerned over rising tensions, conceded that crimes had been committed, promised that the incident would be investigated and expressed hope that “those responsible would be pursued.”

Then, in a damning report that was published by the newspaper Ettela’at, Mehdi Bahadoran who was ordered by Khomeini and his deputy Ayatollah Montazeri to investigate the situation in Kurdistan, wrote that after “extensive investigations into reports and tapes,” he found that mercenaries hired by the gendarmerie and the militia from Naqadeh “under the command of [Azim] Maboudi [head of Naqadeh’s Revolutionary Committee] and Major Najafi in Qarna…massacred at least 45 innocent people in their place of residence and then transferred their bodies to the wilderness to pretend that they had been killed in the battle…In [the village of] Kupelku, Sergeant Major Biglari killed five people. This is the result of incompetence or treason or conspiracy by the gendarmerie commanders and anti-Kurdish sentiments on one hand and the awakening of the spirit of revenge among Kurds on the other hand. Unfortunately, although the perpetrators of this massacre have been identified, they cannot be arrested and punished because Zahir-Nejad [commander of the 64th Army Division in Urmia, capital of West Azerbaijan province] supports the culprits.”

Bahadoran was right about the perpetrators’ impunity because more than 40 years after the promise made by Khomeini none of those responsible for the savage massacre in Qarna have been brought to justice. And, even though indisputable evidence shows that such crimes have been committed across Iran by the agents of the regime, the security establishment and the government’s propaganda machine constantly try to blame the opposition for imaginary crimes by making up fake news and stories and publishing them.

Report about massacre in the village of Qarna, published by the newspaper Ettela’at

Report about massacre in the village of Qarna, published by the newspaper Ettela’at

Bodies of Qarna villagers who were massacred by the Islamic Republic’s forces

Bodies of Qarna villagers who were massacred by the Islamic Republic’s forces

Bodies of Qarna villagers who were massacred by the Islamic Republic’s forces

Bodies of Qarna villagers who were massacred by the Islamic Republic’s forces

The Myth of Baha’is Rejoicing about Iranian Casualties During the War with Iraq

Another target of the Islamic Republic’s psychological operations are religious minorities. One of the biggest campaigns of fake news and hate-mongering propaganda by the Islamic Republic is specifically aimed at the Baha’is. Exactly like the psy-ops against the Kurds, the Islamic Republic’s goal of targeting the Baha’is is to dehumanize and isolate them and to create hatred toward them among the public. And the formula is the same that has been used against the Kurds: inciting public’s anger and hatred by focusing on issues that the Iranians care about, especially by exploiting their patriotic emotions.

If the keywords for dehumanizing the Kurds and turning them into enemies are “secessionism” and “cruelty,” the keywords for dehumanizing the Baha’is and turning them into enemies are “lack of patriotism” and “moral corruption.” Through fake news and fake stories, the Islamic Republic has systematically tried to portray this religious minority as a group that lacks a sense of patriotism, spies for foreigners and is morally corrupt in a myriad of ways.

One of these fake narratives that the government has spread about the Baha’is is that they rejoiced and celebrated when Iranian fighters were killed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

In the years 2006 and 2007, the newspaper Kayan, administered under the direct supervision of Ali Khamenei, published in installments the memoirs of a woman by the name of Mahnaz Raoufi who claimed to have converted from the Baha’i faith to Islam. These memoirs were later published by Kayhan as a book, whose copies were distributed in prisons and schools. In these memoirs Raoufi puts forward numerous baseless accusations against the Baha’is, including the claim that they rejoiced when Muslims were killed during the war with Iraq.

These accusations proved extremely interesting to the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and hate-mongering machine. Raoufi was even invited to a popular program on state TV to repeat her accusations in front of the camera.

A short while after the publication of Raoufi’s memoirs, the newspaper Kayhan repeated the same accusation, this time by quoting another individual by the name of Behzad Jahangiri. In an interview titled “An interview with another rescued Baha’i: The hidden layers of spying in Baha’ism,” Jahangiri claimed that “the Baha’is prayed for the victory of the enemy.”

This accusation then quickly spread to numerous articles on the websites of media outlets and news agencies affiliated with the government. By tracing this accusation in some of these articles we can see the pattern followed by the security and military networks that are the main sources of hate-mongering and campaigns of lies in the Islamic Republic. For example, an article titled “Who danced when [Mohammad Ali] Rajaei [the second president of the Islamic Republic] and [Mohammad Javad] Bahonar [his prime minister] were martyred?” based on Behzad Jahangiri’s memoirs, was published on August 30, 2011, identically and simultaneously, by DEFA Press of the Ministry of Defense, the website Gerdab, an organ of the Revolutionary Guards Cyber Security Command, Bultan News, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, the website Javan Online, another affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards, and Mashregh News, a website that belongs to the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards.

Then, in the following years, the article was republished exactly like the original in numerous websites including the one that belongs to the Political Studies and Research Institute.

How this hate-mongering started and how it was replicated clearly shows the central role played by the Revolutionary Guards in the Islamic Republic’s psychological warfare.

In many cases, such libels that target the Iranian’s sense of patriotism unleash a wave of hatred because the first reaction of a person who is unaware of the facts is not to investigate the truth of the claim but to emotionally respond to the accusation and express his position regarding what he deeply loves or respects.

In fact, many members of the audience of such campaigns, who are generally poorly informed, do not pay attention to those who bring up such accusations and to what purpose. They only want to express their rage and declare their loyalty to values such as patriotism that go beyond political factions. This is adequate for psychological operations aimed at distilling hate toward groups the Islamic Republic wants to target.

But in this case, as usual, we are dealing with a campaign that is a lie from top to bottom. Contrary to these lies spread by the hate-mongering apparatus of the Islamic Republic, thousands of Baha’is fought to defend their homeland during the Iran-Iraq war and scores of them died. The following cases, documented by IranWire, are only a small sample of a long list of Baha’is who gave up their lives during the war: Mohioddin ZehniFarhad AbdiFarhoush AsadiSoroush SadeghiFarhang Shah BahramiFarhad ZahediSaeed MasoudianMehrdad EbrahimzadehMehrdad BadkoobehBehrooz MehreganiSoheil RouhaniYousef Moghaddam and Gholamreza Alaei.

The Islamic Republic that has turned “fatherland” and “patriotism” into the main weapon of its propaganda machine has never accepted these Baha’is as “martyrs” because, from its point of view, a martyr is not somebody who loses his life for his country but for the sake of keeping the regime in power.