The Intercept’s exposé on Heshmat Alavi, whose articles were published on websites including Forbes, The Hill and Al Arabiya English, caused his account to be briefly shut down on Twitter. But how much information war is there at play?
The Iranian opposition is notoriously fractured. There is no love lost between the three main groups – monarchists who support the Pahlavi dynasty, opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and unaffiliated others. Opposition activists frequently compete for legitimacy and publicity through columns, tweets, and media appearances – a maelstrom of information and disinformation.
This contest took an unexpected turn after the political news site The Intercept recently published an article claiming that Heshmat Alavi, an Iranian opposition contributor to various international publications including Al Arabiya English, was not a “real person” or an actual commentator. The article accused Alavi of being a fake persona run by a group of individuals from MEK, an organization accused of being cult-like. MEK was designated by the US State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization between 1997 until 2012.
Following publication of The Intercept’s article, Twitter suspended Alavi’s account. However, the account was reinstated shortly afterwards. When contacted for a statement, the social media platform said it does not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.
A source knowledgeable with the vetting process who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “The user was initially suspended for violating the Twitter Rules. The user appealed the suspension and, after completing the appeals process, Twitter found the account is a credible use of pseudonymity, not a fake account intended to manipulate and deceive.”
Alavi had written for a number of publications including Forbes, The Hill and The Daily Caller. Al Arabiya English discontinued his columns in January this year. Al Arabiya English’s Communications Manager Abdulla Almannai stated that, “That decision came as a result of several editors’ growing concerns over Alavi’s political affiliations.”
Before Alavi’s columns were discontinued, Al Arabiya English staff members had been in regular communication with Alavi via email. During these email exchanges Al Arabiya English obtained a copy of Alavi’s passport as standard procedure for processing contributor payments. The passport submitted did not match with the name Heshmat Alavi. The ostensible real identity of Heshmat Alavi ceased their public Twitter commentary and writing prior to the creation of the alias, now publicly known to be a pseudonym.
Years before the Heshmat Alavi pseudonym became active on Twitter in 2014, the individual in the passport seen by Al Arabiya English had advocated similar political views online. Pseudonyms are commonly used by high-level members of the MEK. “MEK members commonly stop using their real names once they have reached a certain level in the organization to ensure that [MEK leader] Maryam Rajavi receives the majority of media exposure,” said Masoud Alzahid, an expert on Iran.
When contacted at the time, Alavi asked that Al Arabiya English protect his real identity and refrain from publishing his real photograph on articles. “I just wanted to clarify that I truly cannot provide my image,” Alavi told Al Arabiya English by email. “It is out of my hands. I have family inside Iran and if I do provide such a photo of myself this will endanger their security.”
Al Arabiya English reached out to Alavi by phone and email but has received no response.
Iranian dissidents similar to Alavi have been frequently targeted for assassination around the world. In 2015 and 2017, two Iranians were shot dead in The Hague by Dutch gang members – Ahmad Mola Nissi, the leader of an Arab separatist movement in Iran’s Ahwaz region, and Ali Motamed, the accused perpetrator of a bomb attack on the Islamic Republic party’s headquarters. These attacks are part of a wide-spread assassination campaign which led to the EU imposing sanctions on Iran in early 2019.
Iranian dissidents are at risk: two Iranian diplomats, including an ambassador, were expelled from Albania in 2018. The diplomats were accused of planning an attack inside Albania, the country where MEK was relocated to by the US and the UNHCR in 2013 following attacks on their base in Iraq.
“Continuing to publish Alavi after it was discovered that he was not using his real name without informing Al Arabiya English’s readership was not in line with standard procedure,” said Almannai. “For clarity, Alavi’s articles on Al Arabiya English now feature a disclaimer concerning his use of a pseudonym.”
“The decision to withhold Alavi’s full identity was taken to protect him from any potential repercussions that he or his family may have suffered following publication of his content,” he added.
Iranian opposition disunity
The Intercept’s accusation that Alavi is not a “real person” is based on demonstrably biased sources that are either anti-MEK or have ties to the Iranian regime, and have their own stakes in the disinformation war between different factions of the Iranian opposition and regime.
“The most salient feature of Iranian opposition is the high level of disunity,” said Kambiz Foroohar, journalist and geopolitical risk researcher.
“Iranian opposition groups have failed to agree on a simple set of principles that unites them. There is no common front against the Islamic Republic since all groups are putting forward maximalist demands with no plan B. There is no umbrella organization known as Iran opposition – it's like herding cats,” added Foroohar.
It appears The Intercept’s piece on Alavi was published in this context – amid a contest of legitimacy between pro- and anti-MEK factions and sources sympathetic to the Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, The Intercept article quickly drew extensive worldwide media coverage, beginning with Al Jazeera. There is significant crossover between Al Jazeera and The Intercept, with many of The Intercept’s columnists acting as contributors to Al Jazeera – including prominent journalist Mehdi Hasan, the presenter of the Qatari news network’s “UpFront” and “Head to Head.”
The story then went viral. It was picked up by a variety of pundits who are widely accused of being pro-regime mouthpieces or opposition figures with interests in discrediting the MEK. Trita Parsi, the former president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington DC-based group commonly accused of being the regime’s arm in the US, posted several tweets spreading the story and celebrating the closure of the Alavi account. Parsi has been criticized by groups of all stripes including Alavi.
The story was also shared by Negar Mortazavi, who criticized the publication of Alavi’s pieces. Mortazavi has frequently engaged in Twitter arguments with other commentators online, many who have accused her of being an Iranian government mouthpiece. Maryam Memarsadeghi, a member of the Iran Disinformation Project which had received funds from a US State Department group created to counter foreign propaganda, accuses her of being pro-regime. Memarsadeghi is one of many opposition members who have accused Mortazavi of having ties to the Iranian government.
In response, Mortazavi has accused Memarsadeghi of smearing journalists. The context is further clouded by the Iranian regime’s propaganda machine, which has targeted opposition journalists and published 135 fabricated articles since 2016. “The majority of [the Iranian Regime’s discrediting] efforts are conducted via social media campaigns including fake accounts and fake news sites,” said Foroohar.
Amid the brazen information war amongst Iranian opposition factions, the three Intercept sources – Reza Sadeghi Jebelli, Hassan Heyrani, and Sara Zahiri – do not provide credible evidence to ascertain Alavi’s identity. Jebelli and Heyrani are both ex-MEK members who have a clear bias against the organization, while little is known about self-proclaimed Iranian researcher Sara Zahiri.
Reza Sadeghi Jebelli is an ex-MEK member and a human rights activist based in Brussels, Belgium. He has written numerous articles and letters to European officials criticizing MEK.
Jebelli’s outspoken animosity towards MEK began in 1981. According to a MEK-related website he was imprisoned in Iran for his association with the organization, and “betrayed” MEK during his captivity, cooperating with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and his interrogators.
Hassan Heyrani joined MEK in 2003 and left in 2018.
In September 2018, Heyrani told Al Jazeera’s “The Listening Post” that MEK uses thousands of fake Twitter accounts to promote itself and call for regime change in Iran. “Overall I would say that several thousand accounts are managed by about 1,000-1,500 MEK members,” he said.
MEK say that they expelled Heyrani after finding out he was an Iranian intelligence agent. Heyrani allegedly tried to help other Iranian agents get visas to enter Albania undercover while posing as MEK members’ relatives.
Sara Zahiri had minimal online presence until being cited by The Intercept. In an interview with US Iran TV on June 11, 2019, she described herself as chief editor of NITV.news and a researcher, investigative journalist and civil activist.
In a Farsi article from February 2017 which Zahiri posted on her LinkedIn page, Zahiri describes NITV as a nationalist group. Zahiri accuses Baha’i hackers of deleting all of NITV’s videos on YouTube and all the articles Zahiri had written on Iran’s modern history. Zahiri accuses the Baha’is of influencing US policies and threatening Iran’s national identity.
Otherwise, there are sparse details of Zahiri’s life. According to her Facebook profile, she studied and lives in Tehran. There is no Twitter account under her name. Searching for her on Twitter reveals another user asking who she is in January – in response, a pro-Reza Pahlavi account alleged that Zahiri is connected to the regime in Iran, a claim further proved by The Intercept article, where the journalist writes that Zahiri has sources among Iranian government “cybersecurity officials”.
[Translation: Sarah Zahiri is affiliated with the money-laundering regime [of Iran] in Canada.]
The Heshmat Alavi story seems to be part of a wider information war conducted by factions within the Iranian opposition and the Islamic Republic. Rampant disinformation is a common tactic used by all parties involved. As long as Iranian state actors continue to target dissidents, commentators will continue to use pseudonyms for safety purposes.
The Intercept’s claim that Alavi is a “team of people” ignores the necessity for aliases that many opposition commentators require.
“Al Arabiya English will continue to protect the identity of the individual who presented himself as Heshmat Alavi. By protecting writers, Al Arabiya English can adequately serve readership with stories and opinions from across the region,” said Almannai.