How an Iranian misinformation campaign has been adopted and promoted by the Obama administration
Apr 20th, 2015
Hassan Dai, April 2015
Obama administration claims that Iranian nuclear program is supported by vast majority of Iranians and it has become a matter of national pride, therefore, the US can’t force Iran to stop enrichment. This claim is part of Iranian regime’s misinformation campaign that started in 2003 and includes a total ban on opposing the program, jailing the critics, holding state-organized rallies in support of program and fabricating fake public opinion polls in Iran for US audience. Majority of these polls are made by a Tehran-based center tied to security forces. These polls are publicized and promoted by pro-Tehran groups in Washington, many of them are close allies of the Obama administration.
Labor Day rally in Tehran in May 2010, the sign reads: “we don’t want nuclear energy. We want a better life”
On April 2, 2015, Iran and 5+1 countries led by the US reached a framework agreement for resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Based on the Fact Sheet released by the US Department of States, Iran is permitted to keep thousands of centrifuges and continue its enrichment activities. The opponents of the agreement criticize the Obama administration for abandoning the initial US position which was also endorsed by several UN Security Council resolutions demanding a total halt to enrichment activities in Iran.
In response, the Obama administration claims that the Iranian people and the entire regime leadership are unified to defend the right to enrichment and therefore, the US cannot force Iran to abandon such a popular program that has become a matter of national pride. In an interview with New York Time’s reporter Thomas Friedman, president Obama declared:
“What we know is that this has become a matter of pride and nationalism for Iran. Even those who we consider moderates and reformers are supportive of some nuclear program inside of Iran… And given the fact that this is a country that withstood an eight-year war and a million people dead, they’ve shown themselves willing, I think, to endure hardship when they considered a point of national pride or, in some cases, national survival.”
Similarly, Robert Einhorn, a former diplomat and a prominent advocate of the Obama administration has recently explained the reason for accepting Iran’s enrichment program: “Banning enrichment and dismantling Iran’s existing enrichment facilities would indeed be the best negotiated outcome. But such an agreement is not attainable. Iran’s leaders have convinced the Iranian people that a ban on enrichment would deprive them of an inalienable right to pursue civil nuclear power as they see fit and impede their scientific advancement. Iranians across the political spectrum would prefer to forgo an agreement and muddle through under existing sanctions rather than accept what they would regard as a national humiliation.”
The claim that the majority of the Iranian people support the regime’s nuclear program or, a program that is largely unknown to the vast majority of Iranians has become an issue of national pride and the ridiculous allegation that the Iranians “prefer to forgo an agreement and muddle through under existing sanctions rather than accept the halt to enrichment”, are baseless claims and part of the Iranian regime’s campaign of misinformation to influence public opinion and decision makers in the West.
This campaign started in 2003, during the negotiations with European Troika It accelerated during the Obama administration and has been promoted by pro-Iran or pro-engagement groups, many of them close to the administration.
The misinformation campaign
In 2002, after Iran’s secret nuclear program was exposed, the international pressure forced Iran to enter negotiations with three European countries to restrict the nuclear program and halt enrichment activities. As leverage in the negotiations, the Iranian regime launched a well-organized campaign to convince Western governments that the majority of the Iranian people supported the nuclear program and saw it as a symbol of national pride, thus, the government’s hands were tied as they could not possibly be expected to forgo the popular demand and make broad concessions in the negotiations by dismantling the nuclear infrastructure, notably the enrichment activities.
This campaign that has continued since 2003, is based on several pillars:
- Imposing a strict censorship on the media to prevent public debate and opposition to the nuclear program.
- Holding allegedly popular rallies, conferences and events in defense of the nuclear program.
- The fabrication of fake public opinion polls that allegedly reflect the genuine view of Iranian people who support the nuclear program and the regime’s policy. Since 2009, the majority of these “surveys” are made by a Tehran based center founded in 2009 during President Ahmadinejad government by Mohammad Marandi, a close associate of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
These “surveys” are released by the Iranian regime’s lobby and its partners in the US and are largely publicized by influential media outlets and think tanks that support a friendlier policy with Iran.
Media ban on nuclear program criticisms
In October 2006, Mehdi Mahdavi Azad the chief editor of Aftab News Agency who is affiliated with Hashemi Rafsanjani’s faction, wrote an important article and explained how the regime managed to control the public debate on the nuclear issue: “In the summer of 2003, we were suddenly faced with the prospect of a UN resolution against us. At that time, America was on an offensive mood because of its success in Afganistan and Iraq. The U.S. was not yet confronted with its difficulties in Iraq and could be very dangerous to us. Inside the country, the public opinion was not very good in respect to nuclear issue. We had not yet been able to control the media and some opposing voices could be heard. The public opinion was not yet convinced that the nuclear issue is a part of our national pride. Gradually, we were able to control the media and manage the crisis.” (October 2, 2006)
In fact, the regime imposed a tight censorship on the media and in 2005, “The High Council of National Security” issued a decree that forbid the media to publish and broadcast debate or opposition to its nuclear program. Here are few among many declarations by prominent political figures from the reformist camp who have denounced the official ban on public debate.
- Mohamad Reza Khatami, the head of the “Islamic Participation Front,” the main reformist party, told ILNA press service in May 2006: “After the Participation Front published its views on the nuclear issue in February 2006, not only was it censored by the press, but we were officially warned that we should no longer make our views public or we would face some punitive actions against our party. We had no choice but to discuss it privately with politicians. We met with Rafsanjani, Nategh Nouri and even the National Security Council. Larijani did not even want to hear our views. (Emrooz, website, May, 14, 2006)
- In December 2006, Mostafa Tajzadeh the former deputy interior minister in reformist government of Khatami and of the prominent reform leaders (political prisoner for the past six years) participated in a public debate in the University of Gorgan and complained about the ban on debate about nuclear issue: “The High National Security Council had unfortunately ordered the media and press not to discuss the nuclear issue. It is regrettable that such an important issue with such a large impact on our country’s fate should not be discussed. Today’s debate is the first of such public discussion and I strongly welcome it.
- In another interview, Taj Zadeh told Asre-No magazine in April 2006: “We should oppose the passivism and silence on the nuclear issue. In fact, this silence is exactly what the totalitarians [Ahmadinejad’s faction] are looking for because they are publicizing the idea that the whole nation and all the political factions are supporting the regime’s nuclear policy. They are afraid of hearing any discarding voice because of its negative international impacts. It is clear that acquiring the nuclear technology is an Iranian and national right but the problem is how to obtain it. We oppose the actual policy and think that it is against our national interest as well as regional interests as well.
- The Islamic Participation Front, the main reform organization published a statement in January 2007 and sharply criticized the official ban on debating the merits of the nuclear program: “Unfortunately, after the new government came to power, they started to reject any disaccording voice and even did not let us to publish our views about the nuclear issues. This view that no critic should be heard because it would weaken the regime’s confrontation with the West is wrong. This view has imposed a censorship on public media and does not serve our national interests. We should not forget that the Iranians also have other rights, which cannot be sacrificed for acquiring nuclear capabilities.” (Asre no, January 6, 2007)
- Ebrahim Yazdi, the leader of Freedom Movement told Aftab News on January 22, 2007: “Our country is in danger due to the radical policies taken by our leaders especially on the nuclear issue. Since ordinary citizens and political groups are not authorized to criticize the regime’s policy in public, we should ask Khatami and Rafsanjani to intervene and voice their opinion as they do not have the same restrictions as the others have. On the nuclear issue, the regime views the people as outsiders and deprives them of any information. The regime is afraid of any opposition to its policies because it would weaken its position in the confrontation with the West.”
- More recently, on June 11, 2013, a well-known political analyst close to former President Rafsananjani posted an article and asked the regime to end the censorship in the media regarding the nuclear issue. He wrote: “Unfortunately, the authorities have banned any opposition to its official policy on the nuclear issue. In the past, I have submitted my articles to newspapers but they have all been rejected because they were not in line with the official policy. When I protested to the editors, they declared that the government has strictly banned publication of any criticism of the nuclear program. As a result, the only kind of articles that are published in newspapers, are those supporting the program. This policy of censorship started in 2003 when Hassan Rouhani was the head of “High Council of National Security”
- The official censorship is enforced by legal means, pursuing and punishing those who brave the regime’s ban and dare to criticize the nuclear program. A good example is Zibakalam’s case who after the election of new President Hassan Rouhani, published two open letters in February 2014 and called the nuclear program a national disaster that brings nothing but harm to Iran. He was tried and sentenced to eighteen months in prison that was later commuted to an important monetary sanction.
Government organized rallies in support of the nuclear program
In 2003, with the start of the nuclear negotiations, three European foreign ministers arrived in Tehran and the regime promptly mobilized its plain cloth Bassijis militia members to demonstrate in front of their residences to show “popular support for the nuclear program”. The alleged spontaneous demonstrators asked the Iranian negotiators to remain firm and not concede the Iranian people’s rights of keeping its program intact.
Since 2003, these state-organized rallies have become widespread and are designed to impress foreign journalists and politicians who visit the country. These demos are also designed to silence the Iranians who consider opposing the nuclear program in public. During President Ahmadinejad’s presidency, these rallies intensified, regular celebration events to glorify nuclear achievements were organized and the national day for nuclear technology was created.
The so-called public opinion polls
For the past several years, a number of Iranian public opinion polls in regard to the nuclear program have been released in the US. These are two distinct categories of polls, the first of which are those conducted from abroad by calling Iranians inside the country. Considering the repressive nature of the Iranian regime and the sensitivity of nuclear issue and the general understanding by the Iranians that opposing the regime’s nuclear policy will not remain unpunished, these “phone” polls are scientifically unreliable as the Iranians will not take the risk of endangering their own lives by expressing a negative opinions about the regime, its policies and nuclear program in phone conversations with strangers who call from overseas.
Many US organizations that initiate, finance and publicize these polls are aware of this bias but because they favor a friendlier policy with Iran, continue to use these polls as a tool to influence public opinion and shape US position on nuclear talks.
The second category of polls which are more publicized in US media and seem more effective, are those made by allegedly “independent” and “professional” centers in Iran that conduct personal interviews with Iranians across the country. All of these Iran-made polls are entirely regime-fabricated because no organization or center can conduct independent polls in Iran, notably on behalf of foreign clients and be able to contact Iranians freely unless such polling organization is affiliated with security institutions or the Revolutionary Guards. The only time that a relatively independent poll was conducted in Iran was in 2002 by two reformist journalists and pollsters, who were later tried and sentenced to pass years in prison because the result of their polls contradicted the official policy of the regime.
The majority of Iran-made polls are conducted by “University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research (UTCPOR)”, a center that was created by Ahmadinejad’s office to organize the fabrication of public opinion polls tailored for Western audiences. UTCPOR’s main partner in the US is “The Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM)”. The polls are promoted and publicized by pro-Tehran groups in Washington.
The first Iran-made poll (2007)
In January 2007, the US-Iran program at the Washington based Search for Common Grounds (SFCG), in collaboration with “The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), a joint program of “the Center on Policy Attitudes” and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM)” released the first public opinion poll conducted by their partners in Iran.
The SFCG’s top advisor who initiated the poll was former US diplomat William Miller who personally presented the result of the poll. Since 1997, Miller has been a leading board member of the “American Iranian Council” (AIC), a pro-Tehran advocacy organization in Washington. The internal documents of the pro-Iran lobby organization “National Iranian American Council (NIAC)”, released during a defamation lawsuit shows that Ambassador Miller was helping NIAC president Trita Parsi in 2001 to create NIAC as a lobby organization to fight sanctions against Iran.
The 2007 poll claimed that 76% of Iranians said they had an unfavorable opinion of the United States while 91% declared that it is very important for Iran to have a full-fuel-cycle nuclear program, which requires them to have the capacity to enrich uranium.
The detailed report of the survey mentioned that “an extensive poll was conducted in Iran with a randomly selected sample of one thousand Iranian adults from rural as well as urban areas. Professional Iranian interviewers with an independent Iranian survey research firm conducted face-to-face interviews in Iranian homes.” The report did not reveal the name of the alleged “independent” research center that was allowed by Iranian security institutions to conduct the poll in Iran but named Ebrahim Modseni as the Iranian investigator of the project.
In April 2008, a new poll was conducted by the same organization in Iran and was published in the US with similar results showing a large majority of Iranians approved Ahmedinejad’s government’s handling of the country. Mohseni was again named as the Iranian investigator of the project.
University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research (UTCPOR)
Ebrahim Mohseni was a student at the University of Maryland in 2007 who went to Iran and worked under the supervision of Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor to conduct the poll. The Iranian Foreign Ministry monitored the project. Marandi is a well-known hard line figure close to the Revolutionary Guards who usually appears on foreign news outlets to defend the Iranian regime’s position. In this video, Marandi appeared on CNN to defend the repression of the Iranian uprising in 2009.
Following the successful launch of the two polls in the US in 2007 and 2008, and the large media coverage that they received, President Ahmadinejad’s office dedicated more resources to the project and helped to create the “University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research (UTCPOR)” in 2009. The head of the center is Mohammad Marandi and the director of projects is Ebrahim Mohseni who is also tied to the Revolutionary Guards. Here is Mohseni’s talk with “Young Reporters’ Club” controlled by the Guards. Below is the flyer for Mohseni’s speech before the Bassiji student gathering on October 15, 2011. (Bassij is the para-military unit of the Revolutionary Guards)
Ebrahim Mohseni, keynote speaker at a Basiji student event in support of the “Occupy Wall Street Movement”
Since 2009, UTCPOR has produced a dozen of polls for its partners in the US. Additionally, the center has also released domestically used polls designed to help the hardliners and Revolutionary Guards. For example, in 2014, the ultra-hardliners planned to impose a mandatory separation of men and women in working places and universities. They also envisaged to pass it into law in parliament. The plan created a social and media uproar but UTCPOR released a public opinion poll of Iranians that showed an overwhelming support for the plan.
Mohseni explained the result of his poll in an interview with “Tasnim News”, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and declared: “A majority of Iranians who answered our questions told that implementation of Islamic rule in Iran will help to reduce the social and economic problems in the country. 78% believed that the separation of men and women will improve work conditions in public offices and will strengthen the foundation of families. 64% of them preferred that women be given only jobs that are related to women.”
Public opinion polls: an insult to Iranian people
The polls that the Tehran-based center fabricates for its Western clients infallibly show a huge popular support for the nuclear program and the regime’s position in nuclear talks. The results of these polls contradict the most basic understandings about Iran and Iranian people. Even a moderately intelligent observer of Iranian politics will find these polls aberrant and unconceivable. However, these polls are widely publicized and promoted by some US organizations and think tanks that lobby for friendship and coexistence with the Iranian regime, many of whom are close to the Obama administration. Here are some examples of these aberrations:
- In September 2009, after the controversial presidential election and in the midst of the popular uprising in Iran, the poll by the Tehran based center was released in the US claiming that 81% of Iranians considered Ahmadinejad as their legitimate president. While millions of Iranians were demonstrating against the rigged election, the poll found that 81% of people were satisfied with the electoral process. According to the poll: “Though Iran’s human rights record has been criticized by a multitude of international organizations, Iranians themselves hold it in higher regard. Seventy-one percent of Iranians consider themselves at least somewhat free “to express controversial political views, without fear of being harassed or punished.”
- A 2012 survey conducted by the Tehran based center and presented during a public event in Washington, flirted with ridicule as it claimed that majority of Iranians prefer sanctions and even war over halting uranium enrichment. GENEIVE ABDO summarized this astonishing pol in her Foreign Policy article and wrote:
“Respondents were asked: “Would you favor or oppose an agreement whereby all current sanctions against Iran would be removed and Iran would continue its nuclear energy program, except that it would agree not to enrich uranium?” Fifty-nine percent were opposed to stopping enrichment and only 29 percent were in favor.
In another questionnaire, respondents were asked which statement is closer to their opinion: 1) “Iran should continue its nuclear enrichment activity even if it results in war;” or 2) “Iran should prevent a war from occurring even if it means suspending nuclear enrichment.” Fifty-five percent chose to continue enrichment, while 33 percent said Iran should prevent a war, even if it means suspending enrichment.”
Steven Kull (PIPA), Geneive Abdo (moderator), Colin H. Kahl, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Ebrahim Mohseni presenting their 2012 poll, DC, October, 17, 2012
- In 2013 at the height of economic hardships and misery for the Iranian people, a poll conducted in Iran and presented by Trita Parsi and James Zogby claimed that “only 36% of Iranians say that sanctions have had an impact on their lives. This, or national pride, may be the reason why a majority of Iranians (96%) agree with the statement that “maintaining the right to advance a nuclear program is worth the price being paid in economic sanctions and international isolation.”
Trita Parsi of NIAC, Steven Kull of PIPA, Ebrahim Mohseni from Tehran-based UTCPOR present 2013 poll. July 2013
More amazingly, the result of these polls vary according to the regime’s position in nuclear talks. For example, in 2014, the center produced a poll for PIPA in Washington that suggested the Iranians know the details of negotiations and naturally support the regime’ position: “Asked about specific provisions, solid majorities indicate a readiness to consider, as part of a larger deal, Iran providing reassurances never to produce nuclear weapons, accepting more intrusive international inspections to assure Iranian compliance with the NPT, and limiting the level of uranium enrichment to the 5% level, for an agreed upon period of time as part of the comprehensive agreement currently being negotiated between Iran and P5+1 countries. On the other hand, a large majority rejects as unacceptable dismantling half of Iran’s existing centrifuges or imposing limits on nuclear research activities.”
The Tehran-based center founded by Ahmadinejad’s government has found receptive ears in Washington and doors have been opened to the Center’s director Mohseni who presents his aberrant claims in many prestigious think Tanks and institutions.
The Iranian State TV poll showed how the Iranians think
In July 2012, the state TV (state broadcaster IRIB) asked its viewers to cast their vote on Iranian nuclear program. In just two days, tens of thousands of Iranians participated in the poll and 63 percent of respondents said they wanted to abandon Iran’s nuclear program, according to a report by The Telegraph. The results led the channel to hastily shut down voting and accused the foreign hackers for the results.
The poll, asked viewers how Iran should respond to a new oil embargo imposed by the European Union.