Some months ago, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, brought to the public eye the plight of journalists jailed by the Iranian regime – as well as said regime’s attempts to convince them (by torture, among other methods) to devote their talents to purposes that better serve Tehran’s interests (propaganda comes to mind).
This week, The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris offered us a glimpse into a different recruitment process – recruitment, via e-mail, of Western journalists to Iran’s propaganda machine under the guise of calls for papers or invitations to academic conferences. In Harris’s aptly-titled account, “Iran’s Spies Tried to Recruit Me,” the journalist divulged his correspondence with “a representative of the ‘International Congress on 17000 Iranian Terror Victims,’” who “tried to enlist” him in a “conference against ‘Zionist State Terrorism.’”
Harris explained how he, with increasing bewilderment, realized he had been contacted not by a nongovernmental, academic organization, as the International Congress professed itself to be, but by a “state-sponsored propaganda jamboree” affiliated with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “As in the ministry now negotiating with the US over the future of Iran’s nuclear program,” added Harris for clarification.
And the conference? It wasn’t really a conference at all, he wrote, but an “anti-West hate fest” – one “so hopelessly biased” that its past contributors included “wackadoodle conspiracy theorists and inveterate racists,” among them an American anti-Semitic white supremacist.
Harris was able to recover from his incredulity long enough to wonder how such “decidedly unsubtle attempts at public debate,” invariably backed by the Iranian government, are in line with Iranian leaders’ more nuanced, calculated engagement with the West on social media. According to Harris, Iran believes that by trying various tactics “on the spectrum of racist rallies and diplomatic Twitter accounts,” it “might just find a message that works.” But can any critical thinker in the West, its leaders included, really buy one message without raising an eyebrow at the other?