The White House claimed that the nuclear deal had allowed Iran to increase its military budget. The Washington Post asked for a source and the White House referred to an article published in Forbes by a writer named Heshmat Alavi. Alavi, whose contributor biography on the Forbes website identifies him as “an Iranian activist with a passion for equal rights,” has published scores of articles on Iran over the past few years at Forbes, The Hill, the Daily Caller, The Federalist, Saudi-owned al-Arabiya English, and other outlets.
There’s a problem. Heshmat Alavi does not exist. Alavi is a propaganda operation run by the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq, (the MEK.) The MEK conducts online information campaigns, using an army of bots to flood online debates about Iran with the group’s perspective. One of the goals of the MEK team that manages the Hesmat Alavi account is to get articles under Alavi’s name published in the American press.
“Heshmat Alavi is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK. They write whatever they are directed by their commanders and use this name to place articles in the press. This is not and has never been a real person.” ” said Hassan Heyrani, a high-ranking defector from the MEK who said he had direct knowledge of the operation.
Heyrani’s account is echoed by Sara Zahiri, a Farsi-language researcher who focuses on the MEK. Zahiri said that Alavi is known to be a “group account” run by a team of MEK members and that Alavi himself does not exist. The fake persona has been managed by a team of MEK operatives in Albania, where the group has one of its bases, and is used to spread its message online.
Another former MEK member now living in Canada, Reza Sadeghi, confirmed that the trio identified by Heyrani was involved with the group’s online information operations. Sadeghi was a member of the MEK until 2008, involved in lobbying activities in the United States, as well as operations at the MEK’s former base at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. He described a growing online propaganda center run by the group, intended to sway online discourse about Iran.
“We were always active in making false news stories to spread to the foreign press and in Iran,” Sadeghi said. “At Camp Ashraf, there were computers set up to do online information operations. Over the years, this activity got more intense with the introduction of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
Alavi’s Twitter account had apparently attracted over 30,000 followers since its inception in 2014 and frequently shares articles and hashtags praising MKO terrorist chief Maryam Rajavi.
“The group barely produces content in Farsi. They seem to have given up on having a domestic audience in Iran. Their point now is to influence people in the English-speaking world,” said Massoud Khodabandeh, a former member of the MEK’s intelligence department. “Their online strategy works in Washington; it doesn’t work in Tehran.”
In 2002, the MEK helped reveal the existence of a covert Iranian nuclear facility near the city of Natanz. But according to arms control experts, the MEK got crucial details wrong. A 2006 article in the New Yorker also suggested that the intelligence may have been handed to the group by Israeli intelligence, calling into question the MEK’s claims that it operates a potent espionage network inside Iran. The MEK’s information has been less than reliable, causing skepticism among many Western national security analysts. During a 2015 press conference, MEK officials claimed to have evidence of a secret nuclear facility under construction in Iran, complete with clandestine photographs of the site. This claim was debunked by a blogger from the Daily Kos. A reverse image search of a picture of the purported door to the nuclear site revealed that it had actually been taken from a commercial website in Iran that advertised safe boxes.
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