Iran has dramatically increased the depth, funding and sophistication of its propaganda and disinformation activities amid the coronavirus pandemic, a new report has found.
Iranian authorities have repeatedly sought to pass blame for COVID-19 onto the United States, claiming coronavirus was a “biological weapon,” while simultaneously worked to preserve ties with its ally China.
Iran quickly emerged as the regional epicenter of the novel coronavirus, with many of the first cases detected in Middle Eastern countries tracing back to an uncontrolled outbreak in the Islamic Republic. With the regime facing an economic and legitimacy crisis, officials have sought to control the narrative on the novel coronavirus, by deflecting blame and suggesting that the coronavirus is a Western biological weapon, according to the report.
“The COVID-19 disinformation campaign is designed to protect key economic and security partners such as China while also deflecting attention from the Islamic Republic’s economic troubles,” the report published in June 2020 by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center read.
Sanctions in place since 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, have hit the country hard and choked off trade routes with European and many Asian countries. In response, Iran has looked to bolster trade ties with China.
Relationships between the two countries have grown closer, with events during the coronavirus pandemic in particular demonstrating the lengths Iran has gone to in order to maintain trade links with the Asian giant.
In February, as the threat of COVID-19 became real for many countries around the world, the Iranian health ministry urged authorities to close off flights to China – the origination point of the virus.
However, following a conversation between the Chinese Ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, and the CEO of Iranian carrier Mahan Air, Hamid Arabnejad, flights continued, with 55 flights to China taking off in a two-week period in February.
Since 2013, the currency – the rial – has lost 80 percent of its value against the US dollar, while the economy has contracted for the last two years. Large-scale protests at the end of 2019 over a hike in fuel prices dealt a further blow to confidence in the regime among Iranians.
The authors argue that the regime’s legitimacy took a blow in Lebanon and Iraq too, where for years, Iran has sought to drum up support among the Shia communities in these countries, funding proxy networks and setting up cultural centers. But as a result of mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis by the regime, as well as other missteps in the region, support for Iran in Iraq and Lebanon is waning.
“Tehran lied to the world”
In trying to protect its economic and trade interests, while repeatedly telling the Iranian people that the virus was under control, the regime propagated the spread of the pandemic across the Middle East.
In Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Oman, the first reported cases of COVID-19 were Iranians or passengers traveling from Iran.
“The record is clear: Tehran lied to the world and its own people about the COVID-19 outbreak. The regime accused Washington of conducting biological warfare, published distorted public-health data, exaggerated its own achievements, and falsely blamed sanctions for its mismanagement,” the report said.
Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminejad, the study’s authors, outline examples of Iran’s disinformation campaign and their mishandling of the pandemic in the early days.
“With the pandemic spreading and Iranians suffering, Tehran launched a global disinformation campaign directed at both domestic and international audiences to deflect attention from its own malpractice,” the authors of Iran’s COVID-19 disinformation campaign wrote.
The Iranian regime’s propaganda arm is well-funded and expansive, publishing in Farsi as well as other languages, including Arabic and English, across a variety of platforms. This year the regime is set to direct $269 million to religious entities responsible for disseminating propaganda and Iran’s revolutionary ideology.
One of the organizations funded by the state, the Islamic Development Organization, will receive $153 million. In May 2020, an organization official claimed that coronavirus “showed the weakness and impotence of the West,” but that “the Islamic system, despite the draconian sanctions, even sanctions on medicine, created an unforgettable saga with the help of people and has done many good deeds in fighting the virus,” the study’s authors wrote.
These religious organizations, alongside state media are responsible for disseminating disinformation to Iranians via broadcast and social media.
IRIB, Iran’s state broadcast network, has been allocated $1 billion this year – double from last year – is Tehran’s primary domestic propaganda tool, while additional channels, including Press TV and Hispan TV, operate in other languages including English, French, and Spanish.
In March 2020, Press TV ran a report saying the US was the “main factor behind biological warfare” and the “coronavirus cover-up.” The same month, Press TV reported that Iranian scientists and intelligence officials were “examining [the] possibility of coronavirus being biowarfare.”
In August 2018, Facebook removed 652 pages, accounts, and groups originating in Iran and linked to IRIB’s Press TV. In the first three months of 2019, 1,296 pages connected to Iran state media were removed by Facebook.
The report concluded: “The COVID-19 disinformation campaign was designed to defend the clerical regime’s legitimacy at home and in the Arab world, deflect from its incompetence in managing the health crisis and its economy, and defend allies such as China while attacking enemies such as the United States and Israel.”