Abstract: In the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. While governments throughout the world have struggled to address the health crisis, the clerical regime in Iran made a bad situation worse by initially concealing the virus from its population, lying about its gravity and consequences, and holding large-scale public events that inadvertently spread the malady throughout the country and region. Faced with this crisis, Tehran launched a global COVID-19 disinformation campaign to deflect attention from its own malpractice. The regime accused the United States of conducting biological warfare, published distorted public-health data, exaggerated its achievements, and falsely blamed sanctions for its own mismanagement of the pandemic. In response, the world’s democracies should strive to identify, react to, and neutralize more effectively Tehran’s disinformation campaigns and offer counter-narratives.
In the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran quickly became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. According to Iranian authorities, the virus has infected over 207,000 Iranians and killed more than 9,700 as of June 22, 2020.1 The actual numbers are likely much higher, as Tehran has underreported the extent of the outbreak.2 While governments throughout the world have struggled to address the health crisis, the clerical regime in Iran made a bad situation worse by initially concealing the virus from its population, lying about its gravity and consequences, and holding large-scale public events that, in fact, spread the malady throughout the country and region.
The regime brought massive crowds to the streets for the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on February 11, 2020, and for parliamentary elections on February 21, 2020. Iranian officials reportedly knew of the threat imposed by the virus by December 2019,3 but it took them until February 19, two days before the election, to acknowledge the country’s first two COVID-19 deaths.4 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. Tehran blamed the United States for creating the virus and for imposing sanctions that allegedly undermined Iran’s public health response. The campaign’s goals were to intensify disagreements between the United States and its allies and pressure Washington to suspend its sanctions.
The clerical regime’s reliance on disinformation is rooted in its ideology. The Islamic Republic is a revolutionary theocracy based on radicalized Shiism. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sees himself as God’s representative on Earth. Accordingly, he has a mission. Like other revolutionary states, the Islamic Republic has sought to export its creed to the broader Muslim world and confront what are depicted as satanic forces—the United States, Israel, and Western culture in general—that threaten Islam. Propagating these ‘big lies’ requires a persistent bending of reality to fit this narrative.
Senior members of the regime rarely acknowledge the theocracy’s shortcomings; Khamenei, the ruling clerical elite, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorians, have crushed all attempts at fundamental change and reform. The Islamic Republic promises its followers a prosperous and just society, superior to any other in the world. So far, it has failed. When the reality does not match the promise, the regime inevitably attempts to bend reality to its world view, not infrequently inverting disasters into successes and proffering wild conspiracies as fact. The regime’s anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, for example, represent a fundamental pillar of the regime’s propaganda and are frequently invoked to mask its failures.5
As the U.S. State Department and the E.U. External Action Service separately reported in April 2020, Iran, Russia, and China have waged coordinated disinformation campaigns pushing the narrative that Washington created the coronavirus to weaken the three countries. According to this narrative, Iran, Russia, and China have actually managed the pandemic better than the United States has.6 If containing the spread of the virus inside the country is the measure of success, China may indeed have done a better job than the United States, though Beijing’s initial handling of the crisis, shrouded in secrecy and the silencing of medical professionals, contributed to the global spread of the pandemic.7
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. In response, the United States and other democracies should strive to identify, react to, and neutralize more effectively Tehran’s disinformation campaigns and offer counter-narratives.
This article will proceed as follows: First, it will examine the COVID-19 crisis in Iran and Tehran’s response. Next, it will explain the institutional architecture of Iran’s disinformation operations, providing examples of how the clerical regime spreads disinformation on social media. The article will then describe how Tehran used disinformation to publicly exonerate China and blame the United States for the outbreak, and to deflect from the dismal state of Iran’s economy. Next, the essay will examine the reach of these campaigns into the Arab world to support Tehran’s image. Finally, it will analyze Iran’s use of disinformation to undermine international support for U.S. sanctions, a key instrument of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against the clerical regime.
COVID-19 in Iran and the Failings in Tehran’s Response
The first reports of COVID-19 infections in Iran emerged in January 2020 in the holy city of Qom.8 However, Iran only acknowledged the first victims in February 2020. According to Iranian health officials, the virus most likely came from China, either through Chinese students at the Qom seminaries and Al-Mustafa International University or from Chinese workers involved in infrastructure projects around Qom.9
Based on this narrative, the authors assess Iran’s patient zero likely traveled from China to Qom in late December 2019 or early January 2020. In late December 2019, Iran’s former health minister warned regime officials about the severity of China’s outbreak.10 By mid-January 2020, Iranian officials were likely confident that the virus had entered the country, because on January 17, 2020, health officials requested a ban on flights from China. Their request was apparently rejected.11 Even in late February 2020, Mahan Air, an airline sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for providing assistance to the IRGC,12 was still operating flights to and from China.13
Tehran denied the existence of an outbreak until February 19, 2020. On January 31, 2020, regime officials claimed the country had no COVID-19 patients.14 The government mobilized its security and intelligence forces to aggressively target and arrest15 whistleblowers warning about Iran’s outbreak.16 In late April 2020, the regime announced it had arrested 3,600 Iranians for spreading rumors about the coronavirus.17
There were surely many reasons why senior Iranian officials concealed the outbreak.18 Among the most likely was the regime’s desire to avoiding depressing turnout for the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11 and for parliamentary elections on February 21. The regime undoubtedly hoped these events would bolster its legitimacy following massive protests from mid-November 2019 into January 2020, which were sparked by the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies. These demonstrations spooked Iran’s leaders, who reportedly responded by killing 1,500 protestors.19
As the outbreak worsened, Iranian officials finally relented. On February 19, 2020, facing a flood of information about the severity of the spread in Qom, local officials acknowledged two cases in the city but continued their disinformation campaign, rejecting “rumors” about a larger outbreak.20 Less than a week later, Qom’s representative in parliament announced that 50 Qom residents had died from COVID-19.21 Mohammad Reza Ghadir, the head of Qom’s Medical Science University, said on live television that he had been asked not to reveal the city’s true statistics.22 He was quarantined a few days later.23
Tehran presumably downplayed Qom’s outbreak to avoid having to quarantine the city, which Shi`a consider holy. Qom is also an important seat of political power. Home to the Qom Seminary and Masoumeh Shrine, the city hosts influential ayatollahs and attracts hundreds of thousands of worshippers every year. Seyed Mohammad Saeedi, Khamenei’s representative in Qom and the custodian of Masoumeh, refused24 to shut the shrine down. It was only in mid-March 2020 that the government finally shuttered it.25
The state-run news agency Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) understated the severity of the outbreak.26 For example, in February 2020, Atefe Mirseyedi, an IRIB television host and longtime health commentator, compared the virus to a cold and claimed she probably had caught it earlier but fully recovered.27 Denial and downplaying replaced preparation. Hospitals lacked the necessary protective equipment.28 Tehran failed to quarantine infected cities29 and did not shut down non-essential businesses on time, leading to an epidemic and horrific reports of mass burials.30 The number of new daily cases reached a temporary peak on March 30, 2020, and then consistently dropped until May 2. Since then, the number of new daily cases has been increasing and in early June 2020 surpassed the previous peak.31
The regime has tried to use conspiracy theories32 to deflect blame. In March 2020, Khamenei tasked Iranian officials with finding evidence of a potential biological attack. Iran’s military started an investigation but has not to date published the results.33 Later that same month, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and an army of civil society organizations and scholars adopted a different tack: They blamed U.S. sanctions, launching a large-scale disinformation campaign to pressure Washington to lift sanctions. They ignored the fact that U.S. law exempts medical supplies and other humanitarian goods and that the regime had tens of billions of dollars available to support healthcare and economic stimulus.34
Iran’s Network of Disinformation Operations
Iran’s leaders lie to their own people, in international forums and through traditional and social media to a global audience. Since its founding, the clerical regime has invested heavily in building a disinformation machine at home and abroad. The key institutions that conduct Tehran’s disinformation and influence operations are the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), the MFA, IRIB, the IRGC, and missionary organizations such as the Islamic Development Organization, Al-Mustafa International University, and the Islamic Propaganda Office of Qom Seminary.35
The MCIG plays a critical role in imposing censorship inside the Islamic Republic, responsible for granting the regime’s imprimatur to journals, newspapers, books, movies, music, and culture centers. Since the Islamic Revolution, the regime has been very sensitive to cultural matters, which it tends to see through a security lens. As a result, the MCIG and the Ministry of Intelligence cooperate extensively,36 including by coordinating the approval and surveillance of foreign reporters in Iran in an effort to ensure the regime is covered favorably. Articles written by foreign journalists are monitored closely; critical reportage almost inevitably leads to visa denials or revocations.37 The regime frequently harasses, even arrests, disobedient foreign journalists.38 In March 2020, citing the need to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the MCIG banned the printing and distribution of all newspapers and magazines.39
It is the authors’ understanding based on their tracking of the issue that compliant journalists, however, get rewarded by tips, leaks, or exclusive interviews with top officials. Nevertheless, even those who cooperate with Iran’s executive branch are not safe. The IRGC’s intelligence branch runs its own operations independent of the Intelligence Ministry and MCIG and has its own red lines concerning what Iranian and foreign journalists may publish.40
The MFA and its Public Diplomacy Division comprise another pillar of Tehran’s disinformation network and have played a crucial role in Iran’s COVID-19 disinformation efforts.41 The MFA is the first gatekeeper for determining whether foreigners, including journalists, may visit Iran and the conditions of their stay. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif,42 casts himself as a reasonable diplomat who is different from the regime’s religious zealots.43 Zarif has spent decades establishing personal connections with Western journalists, think-tankers, policymakers, and business executives, especially in the United States, where he spent two decades, first as a student and then as an MFA official at the United Nations.44
Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, the MFA’s spokesman, runs the Public Diplomacy Division, which plays an important role in running Iran’s global propaganda campaigns.45 As one example, on March 23, 2020, MFA tweeted, “If @StateDept claims the mounting global questions about US role in #COVID19 pandemic are mere ‘Iran-made conspiracy theories’, then US must answer some of these questions asked by the Global Research.”46 The tweet included a link to an article published by a website called Global Research, which had republished a piece by the Chinese state media outlet China Global Television Network. The article implied an American origin for the virus.47
Another key player in Tehran’s propaganda machine is Hossein Jaberi Ansari, who heads the MFA’s Iranian Expatriates Division,48 which seeks to persuade millions of Iranian expatriates to support the Islamic Republic. Most Iranian expatriates live in Western Europe, North America, the United Arab Emirates, or Turkey. Regime officials regularly meet with Iranian expatriates across the globe.49
Many Iranian expatriates oppose the Islamic regime in Iran. Yet over the last few years, it is the authors’ understanding based on their tracking of the issue that some Iranian expatriates have founded organizations that promote a more conciliatory approach to the clerical regime and demand an end to international sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s 2020-2021 budget allocates $105 million for “supporting Iranian expatriates and increasing their participation in national development projects,” nearly tripling the previous year’s funding. This remarkable increase despite the regime’s financial woes indicates how much it values influencing the diaspora.50
The Islamic Development Organization, Al-Mustafa International University, and the Islamic Propaganda Office of Qom Seminary chiefly focus on training Shi`a clerics, sending missionaries across the globe, and disseminating a revolutionary interpretation of Shi`a teaching.51 Al-Mustafa has trained 50,000 students from 122 nations.52 Mohsen Rabbani, a cleric who for decades was Iran’s top intelligence officer in Latin America, is a teacher and advisor at Al-Mustafa. He is wanted by Interpol for his alleged role in a 1994 terrorist attack against a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds. Rabbani’s top disciple and a graduate of Al-Mustafa, Edgardo Ruben Suhail Assad, is active in Latin America and runs more than 20 centers in the region.53 Al-Mustafa got dragged into the debate over the source of Iran’s outbreak after Iranian public health officials announced Chinese seminary students in Qom might have brought the virus to Iran. Molavi Abdulhamid, the prayer leader of Sunnis in the town of Zahedan, said the Chinese students at Al-Mustafa, which he accused of brainwashing its students and harming the unity of the Muslim world, brought the disease to Iran.54 Al-Mustafa strongly denied that its students were the source of the virus.55
The regime is set to spend at least $269 million in 2020-2021 on religious entities in charge of disseminating global revolutionary Islamist teaching and propaganda, with $80 million going to Al-Mustafa, $153 million to the Islamic Development Organization, and $36 million to the Islamic Propaganda Office of Qom Seminary.56 Khamenei directly appoints the directors of Al-Mustafa and the Islamic Development Organization, which are currently led by Ali Abbasi and Mohammad Qomi, respectively. Khamenei also appoints the Islamic Propaganda Office’s board of directors, which, in turn, selects the director, currently Ahmad Vaezi.
These organizations have actively disseminated disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, for example, an Islamic Development Organization official claimed that COVID-19 “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.”57 Such commentary is typical and continuous.
IRIB, with its monopoly over broadcasting in Iran, is Tehran’s primary tool for domestic propaganda. However, IRIB also has several non-Persian channels, designed to broadcast Tehran-approved narratives and infiltrate foreign media and policy circles.58 High-profile Western politicians, such as former U.K. Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Spain’s Second Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias,59 have worked for, or appeared on, IRIB foreign-language television services such as Press TV and Hispan TV.60 Iglesias hosted a show on Hispan TV called Fort Apache. Corbyn appeared on Press TV “as an occasional host and commentator” between 2009 and 2012 and received up to £20,000.61 The U.K. communications regulator, Ofcom, revoked Press TV’s license for breaching the United Kingdom’s Communications Act.62 The decision came after Ofcom sided with the tortured Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who filed a complaint against Press TV for filming and airing his forced confessions.63
IRIB has been allocated $1 billion this year—more than twice last year’s budget—along with almost $165 million from the National Development Fund, Iran’s sovereign wealth fund, on top of hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue.64 IRIB allocates almost one-sixth of its budget to foreign broadcasting. However, the planned budget may not be realized as the clerical regime struggles with the impact of sanctions on its economy and government budgets. In June 2020, IRIB stated that it may close some of its foreign channels, including its flagship channels Press TV and Al-Alam, due to lack of foreign currency and inability to pay satellite fees. IRIB has already closed down its Kabul-based Dari-language program for the same reason.65
IRIB has played a key role in downplaying Iran’s epidemic and spreading lies about Washington’s role in creating COVID-19. In August 2018, Facebook removed 652 pages, accounts, and groups originating in Iran and connected to IRIB’s Press TV. The removed network focused on the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and the United States.66 Between January and March 2019, Facebook removed a total of 1,296 pages connected to the Iranian state media, likely referring to IRIB and IRNA (the Islamic Republic News Agency), which amplified content related to sanctions, terrorism, and Syria, among other issues.67
In April 2020, Facebook suspended a network of IRIB-controlled accounts that were disseminating pro-Tehran disinformation.68 In addition to attacking opposition groups, the network focused on the United Kingdom, the United States, and several African countries.69 According to the social network analysis firm Graphika, the main language used on the Facebook pages taken down in April 2020 was Arabic. Of these pages, 66 of were publishing materials in Arabic, 22 in English, and nine in Farsi. The Arabic pages were involved in promoting Ayatollah Khamenei’s sayings and teachings.70
Covering statements from Iranian officials, Press TV published a series of reports and articles attacking the United States. On March 12, 2020, for example, Press TV published a report stating that the United States was the “main factor behind biological warfare” and “coronavirus cover-up.”71 On March 23, 2020, Press TV reported that Iranian scientists and intelligence officials were “examining [the] possibility of coronavirus being biowarfare.” Press TV went further, reporting that there was even speculation that “this virus has been created to specifically target the Iranian population given their genetic traits.”72
Key news agencies in Iran, including IRGC-controlled Fars News and Tasnim News, amplify anti-American voices through their English-language operations. Fars and Tasnim publish interviews with American pundits, writers, and analysts whose views align with Tehran’s.73 Both outlets have actively disseminated disinformation during the pandemic. Fars News published a series of interviews and articles making claims such as “US aims Coronavirus at China [and] Iran.”74 Tasnim published similar reports. For example, in March 2020, Tasnim published an interview with the title “COVID-19 A Bio-Weapon, Iran Should Be Suspicious of US Aid Offer.” According to the piece, the United States “had outsourced its bioweapons development program in part to China” and the outbreak of the virus “was born out of a global bioweapons smuggling ring which involves Winnipeg in Canada, Harvard University in the United States and Wuhan in China.”75
IRGC media personalities contributed to these efforts. Nader Talebzadeh, a regime propagandist whom the U.S. Treasury Department designated76 for facilitating recruitment for the IRGC-Quds Force, hosted Ali Karami, a professor at the IRGC Baghiat-Allah University, on his show. Claiming COVID-19 disproportionately affects Iranians and Italians because they have similar genes, Karami said it was possible that the United States had created a “racial weapon.”77 Three years earlier, Karami and Talebzadeh had accused the Pentagon of contaminating Mecca’s holy Zamzam Well with “Funvax virus” to weaken Muslims’ belief in Islam.78
In one surreal example, not atypical for senior officials in the Islamic Republic, the IRGC’s top commander, Major General Hossein Salami, on April 15, 2020, credited scientists working for the Basij paramilitary force with inventing a coronavirus test device. It was an absurd claim, as revealed by the unveiling ceremony. Salami reportedly said, “[U]sing a magnetic field and a bipolar virus inside the device, any point within a radius of 100 meters that is infected will be detected by the antenna of this device, which is placed in front of that point and the infected point is defined within five seconds.”79
Tehran also uses an influence operation called the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM). In August 2018, the U.S.-based cyber security firm FireEye exposed IUVM as an Iranian operation that used a network of fake social media accounts to distribute Iranian government propaganda.80 According to Reuters, IUVM “has quietly fed propaganda through at least 70 websites to 15 countries from Afghanistan to Russia.”81 Reuters reported that the sites are “visited by more than half a million people a month, and have been promoted by social media accounts with more than a million followers.”82 In late February 2020, Iran unleashed its IUVM disinformation network to blame the United States for COVID-19. As one example, IUVM published an article titled “Is coronavirus an American creation?” on its social media sites.83
Iran’s Disinformation Campaign to Exonerate China and Blame the United States
Iran’s disinformation network was mobilized in the COVID-19 disinformation campaign to not only undermine its adversaries but also to protect key allies. The clerical regime depends on China as its main trading partner and source of foreign direct investment.84 Chinese influence in Iran’s economy has only grown as U.S. sanctions have dramatically decreased investment and trade with Tehran’s traditional economic partners in Europe and Asia.85
The Chinese ambassador enjoys significant influence in the Islamic Republic. On January 31, 2020, after Iran’s health ministry had already tried unsuccessfully to stop flights between Iran and China, Iran’s cabinet spokesperson announced that all flights to China would be canceled.86 Chinese Ambassador Chang Hua had other plans, however. He went directly to Mahan Air’s CEO, Hamid Arabnejad, and asked him to continue the flights. On February 2, Hua tweeted a picture of his meeting with Arabnejad and announced Mahan would “continue cooperation with China.”87 An investigation by U.S.-funded Radio Farda revealed that between February 4 and February 23, 2020, Mahan Air conducted 55 flights to China.88 Many Iranians, including health ministry officials, blame Mahan Air for Iran’s epidemic.89
In a similar episode, Ambassador Hua condemned Iran’s health ministry spokesperson after the latter expressed doubts about China’s official COVID-19 statistics, a concern expressed by many foreign officials. The IRGC, whose business interests are closely tied to China, called for an investigation into the spokesperson’s statement.90
These episodes demonstrate the extent of China’s influence and underscore how far regime officials will go to protect this vital relationship. For nationalistic Iranians, this evokes painful memories of foreign ambassadors brazenly interfering in Iran’s internal affairs.
Acutely sensitive to criticisms that it is bowing to another imperial power, Tehran resorted to its familiar disinformation tactics, presumably to divert attention from the regime’s close relationship with Beijing and malpractice in permitting flights from China to continue. Tehran decided to blame the United States. In early March 2020, Khamenei suggested that the COVID-19 outbreak might have been a biological attack.91 Following Khamenei’s lead, the IRGC’s Student News Network raised doubt that China was the origin of the virus and implied that the CIA could be behind the outbreak.92 On the same day, the IRGC’s Tasnim News repeated Russian disinformation suggesting the Pentagon created the virus to target China. Tasnim asked why the United States had 25 bio labs in countries around China.93 IRGC’s Javan Online followed up a day later and amplified Chinese propaganda. It claimed that Chinese officials had revealed new details showing the United States might be behind the COVID-19 outbreak.94 On March 14, 2020, in a letter addressed to Major General Mohamad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Khamenei described Iran’s coronavirus response as “an exercise in biological defense,” citing unspecified “evidence that raises the possibility of this event being a biological attack.”95 That same month, IRGC commander Hossein Salami went further, directly accusing the United States of perpetrating a biological attack against the Islamic Republic.96
COVID-19 Disinformation to Deflect from Economic Pressures and Incompetence
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. These economic problems are exacerbated not only by U.S. sanctions, but also by regime corruptiona and state intervention that undermines the private sector.97 While Tehran’s mishandling of the COVID-19 epidemic threatened the security and safety of millions of Iranians, including the clerical regime’s own supporters, the dismal state of the Iranian economy had already undermined the regime’s legitimacy.
Even before the health crisis, a combination of economic malpractice, corruption, and U.S. sanctions was battering the Iranian economy. In 2018 and 2019, Iran’s real GDP shrank by 5.4 and 7.6 percent, respectively, while its average annual inflation rate was 31.2 and 41.4 percent.98 Iran’s currency, which was trading at 37,000 rials per U.S. dollar immediately before Rouhani’s June 2013 election, has since fallen to 198,000 rials as of June 22, 2020—an 80 percent depreciation.99 On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the exchange rate was 70 rials per U.S. dollar.100
In April 2018, the Islamic Republic exported 2.5 million barrels of oil per day right before the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions.101 Iran’s oil exports to customers in Europe, South Korea, Japan, and India now stand at zero. Only China continued to import Iranian crude in violation of U.S. sanctions, and even those imports are minimal, at an estimated 70,000 to 200,000 barrels per day during April 2020.102 Tehran has provided its Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad with free oil as part of an estimated $20 to $30 billion that the clerical regime has reportedly spent since 2011 to prop up the Syrian regime.103
COVID-19 exacerbated the regime’s economic challenges. The latest trade data released by Tehran, covering January to April 2020, shows a significant drop in Iran’s exports and an increase in its trade deficit.104
Concerned about the economic impact of large-scale lockdowns, the clerical regime failed to shut down the economy and impose social distancing measures in a timely manner. In a revealing episode in late February 2020, Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, spoke at a press conference to assure Iranians that the situation was under control, even as he was sweating and coughing and not wearing a mask. Harirchi had contracted COVID-19, and he went into quarantine a few days later.105 The resultant epidemic struck Iran’s population hard, turned the country into a regional proliferator of the virus, and further battered the regime’s legitimacy.106
Disinformation on COVID-19 to Salvage Iran’s Image in the Arab World
While COVID-19 battered the legitimacy of the clerical regime at home, it also further challenged the regime’s image in Lebanon and Iraq, where Tehran has tried hard to dominate the Shi`a population, as well as in the broader Middle East. Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, and Oman all reported that their first COVID-19 cases were either Iranians or passengers traveling from Iran.107 Iraq and Lebanon, which in 2019 and early 2020 witnessed protests against their Iran-backed governments, were infected as a result of travel to and from Iran, among other vectors.108 As a result, Iraq closed its border with Iran on March 8, 2020,109 and has yet to fully reopen it.110 On March 11, Lebanon announced it would ban flights from 11 countries, including Iran.111 Even in New York City, while many of the early cases were linked to travel from Europe,112 the first confirmed case involved travel from Iran.113
To counter its problems in the Arab world, the Islamic Republic resorted to its usual playbook. Through Al-Alam,114 IRIB’s main Arabic-language television channel, and through Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, which broadcasts from Lebanon via satellite to the broader Arabic-speaking world, the clerical regime has tried to blame the virus on the United States and pinpoint American sanctions as the primary culprit preventing Tehran from handling the crisis. For example, in March 2020, Al-Alam interviewed an Iranian scientist who cited three reasons why COVID-19 could be a U.S.-made biological weapon.115 Iran supports this propaganda through a continuous effort to manipulate Arabic-language social media. For example, as already noted, Graphika reported that Arabic was the main language used by the IRIB-connected disinformation network that Facebook removed in April 2020. The network focused on countries in North Africa and amplified contents from IRIB’s Al-Alam.116
Disinformation on COVID-19 to Discredit U.S. Sanctions
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. The regime also took direct aim at U.S. sanctions on Iran. In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic, against the advice of most of the United States’ European and Asian allies but with the support of many of Washington’s Arab partners and Israel. Tehran saw this as an opportunity to intensify political divisions between the United States and its allies and between American supporters and opponents of the nuclear agreement. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani bragged that the MFA “initiated a concentrated effort to influence public opinion and say ‘no’ to sanctions.”117 Led by Foreign Minister Zarif, Tehran deployed its spokespeople around the world to argue that sanctions prevented Iran from fighting the pandemic. Some global policymakers publicly urged Washington to provide sanctions relief to Iran because of the crisis.118 b
In response, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Rouhani for using the Islamic Republic’s COVID-19 crisis to push a “concerted effort to lift U.S. sanctions” in order to generate “cash for the regime’s leaders.”119 Pompeo added: “We offered humanitarian assistance, real humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people, but we’re not about to send cash to the Ayatollahs … It’ll be funneled, siphoned off; it’ll be used for corrupt purposes. And so that is the wrong approach to assistance inside of Iran.”120
This claim of the clerical regime’s disinformation campaign was false. U.S. sanctions on Iran have always provided an exception for humanitarian aid.121 A recent analysis of pharmaceutical trade between Europe and Iran shows little change between 2011 and 2019 despite periods of imposition, suspension, and return of sanctions.122
In October 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department and the Swiss government announced their efforts to establish a humanitarian banking channel backed by rigorous oversight to prevent the regime from diverting money and goods away from the Iranian people.123 On January 30, 2020, Treasury announced the completion of the first financial transaction through this channel, benefitting Iranian cancer and transplant patients.124 Tehran acknowledged its first COVID-19 patients three weeks later. Iran has tens of billions of dollars in oil export revenue sitting in foreign escrow accounts, available to fund imports of humanitarian goods, and some Iranian banks remain connected to the SWIFT financial messaging system to facilitate humanitarian trade.125 Indeed, that is how Iran imported $15 billion in essential goods and medicine in the past year, according to the governor of Iran’s Central Bank.126 If global banks are reluctant to process transactions, they have ample reason—namely, the international community’s concern about the clerical regime’s illicit financial practices127 and its record of diverting humanitarian goods to fund its terrorist operations.128
Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei controls more than $200 billion in off-the-books assets in holding companies and foundations.129 He could easily use tens of billions of dollars from this corporate empire to support Iran’s $400 billion economy and pay for economic stimulus and healthcare relief, as many other governments have done. Instead, Khamenei uses this money to fund his revolutionary agenda at home and abroad.
In the second wave of its disinformation operation, Tehran demanded a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), pointing to COVID-19 and U.S. sanctions to justify the loan. Yet the IMF estimates that Iran’s central bank has $75 to $80 billion in foreign currency reserves available for humanitarian trade.130 According to an analysis by one of the authors, Tehran’s National Development Fund has an estimated $15 to $20 billion in liquid assets.131 Tehran therefore has $90 to $100 billion in combined foreign currency reserves available to pay for imports of food, medicine, and medical equipment.132 It remains unclear whether Tehran will receive the IMF loan.
Iran’s disinformation campaign was undoubtedly designed to muddy the waters when it came to these facts, to try to create divisions between Washington and key U.S. allies and put the Trump administration on the defensive. In 2004, Rouhani described Iran’s nuclear policy as a twin strategy of “confidence-building and … build[ing] up our technical capability,” with the goal of “cooperating with Europe” in order to divide Europe from the United States.133 By leveraging the COVID-19 crisis, Iran’s disinformation campaigns furthered that objective.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has significantly expanded the depth, reach, and sophistication of its disinformation activities. Having invested heavily in its broadcast, internet, and social media operations, Tehran can now quickly create waves of disinformation across the globe. The goal is to deflect domestic criticism of the regime, attack adversaries such as the United States and Israel, and sow dissension among Western nations. In these efforts, the clerical regime is not alone. The E.U. Commission recently called out China and Russia for having “engaged in targeted influence operations and COVID-related disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood and globally.”134
To combat Iranian disinformation as well as campaigns from China and Russia, the world’s democracies should modernize and equip their anti-disinformation operations. The goal should be to identify quickly and dismantle these disinformation efforts and provide a counter-narrative. Speed is essential, as is accuracy. As Mark Twain is widely believed to have remarked, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” That this quote is apocryphal only demonstrates the power of a ‘good’ line repeated over and over again.135 CTC
Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor. Follow @mdubowitz and @SGhasseminejad
[a] Iran was ranked 146th out of 180 countries in relative level of corruption in 2019 (with 180th being the worst ranking), according to Transparency International. “Iran,” Transparency International, accessed June 16, 2020.
[b] Some of those supporting sanctions relief did not call for the suspension of sanctions but encouraged the Trump administration to provide greater guidance and take additional policy and technical steps to assure international companies and financial institutions that they could export humanitarian goods to Iran without fear of penalties. See “Statement from Vice President Joe Biden on Sanctions Relief During Covid-19,” Medium, April 2, 2020, and “Menendez and Engel Propose Policies for Addressing COVID-19 in Iran,” Office of Senator Bob Menendez press release, April 3, 2020. Also see this analysis from sanctions experts Katherine Bauer and Dana Stroul who argue that “Iran is still struggling to obtain [humanitarian] supplies” and argue that “there are actions that the United States could take — short of lifting sanctions — to aid the humanitarian response in Iran. Without fundamentally altering the sanctions infrastructure, the administration could provide greater clarity on allowable humanitarian trade and authorizations for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to expand their work in Iran.” Katherine Bauer and Dana Stroul, “Sanctions relief isn’t necessary to assist Iran’s coronavirus response,” The Hill, March 31, 2020.
 “World Map,” Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, accessed May 20, 2020.
 Rikard Jozwiak, “EU Monitors See Coordinated COVID-19 Disinformation Effort By Iran, Russia, China,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 22, 2020; Betsy Woodruff Swan, “State report: Russian, Chinese and Iranian disinformation narratives echo one another,” Politico, April 21, 2020.
 “[The rumor of seeing Coronavirus in Qom was denied],” Moj News Agency (Iran), February 1, 2020.
 “[Iranian Ministry of Health Official: Chinese workers in Qom may have spread Coronavirus],” Iran International (Iran), March 23, 2016; “[Coronavirus has been circulating in Iran since early February],” BBC Persian, March 28, 2020.
 “[Rouhani: High-ranking officials did not have a day off in the last 4 months / 158 mosques in the city reopened],” Tasnim News Agency (Iran), March 11, 2016.
 “[The rumor of seeing Coronavirus in Qom was denied];” “[The Public Relations and Information Center of the Ministry of Health announced: Denial of rumors that Corona entered the country],” Mizan Online News Agency (Iran), January 31, 2020.
 Hafezeh Tarikhi, “[Iranian state TV aired a forced confession by a man who blew whistle over coronavirus, Kurdistan, Iran (7 Feb 2020) -English Subtitle],” Twitter, March 9, 2020.
 Zachary Evans, “Iran to Sentence Citizens Who ‘Spreads Rumors’ about Coronavirus to Flogging, Three Years in Prison,” National Review, February 26, 2020; “[Twenty-four persons who spread rumors about the virus have been arrested],” Tabnak (Iran), February 26, 2020.
 “[The first suspected patients with coronavirus were identified in Qom],” TRT Persian (Turkey), February 19, 2020.
 Omid Montazeri, “[Corona: ‘tip of the iceberg’ in Iran; What is happening in Qom?]” BBC Persian, February 25, 2020.
 “Iran cleric encourages visitors to Qom religious sites, despite coronavirus fears,” Middle East Monitor, February 27, 2020; Aya Batrawy, “Iran cleric encourages visitors to Qom religious sites, despite coronavirus fears,” Associated Press, February 25, 2020.
 Jon Gambrell, “Shiite Hardliners in Iran Storm 2 Shrines That Were Closed to Stop Coronavirus Spread,” Associated Press, March 17, 2020.
 Hafezeh Tarikhi, “[20:30 News Radio and TV about the situation in Qom and reports of the outbreak of coronavirus in the city, one day before the elections of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (February 20, 2020)],” Twitter, March 9, 2020.
 “[TV host who had no fear of disease got Corona],” Khabaronline (Iran), March 23, 2020.
 Hafezeh Tarikhi, “[Statements by the Head of the Center for Infectious Diseases of the Ministry of Health and the Deputy Minister of Health, Mohammad Mehdi Goya: The quarantine that was carried out …],” Twitter, February 24, 2020.
 “The World Health Organization Emergency Dashboard,” World Health Organization, accessed on June 16, 2020.
 “[The order of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution to General Bagheri to form a Corona / Health headquarter should be formed],” Fars News Agency (Iran), March 12, 2020.
 Seth G. Jones and Danika Newlee, “The United States’ Soft War with Iran,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 11, 2019; Saeed Ghasseminejad and Alireza Nader, “Who runs Iran’s Propaganda abroad?” Radio Farda, April 17, 2020; Emerson T. Brooking and Suzanne Kianpour, “Iranian digital influence efforts: Guerrilla broadcasting for the twenty-first century,” Atlantic Council, February 11, 2020; Toby Dershowitz and Talia Katz, “Torture TV: The Case for Sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s State-Run Media,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 27, 2020.
 Nicolas Pelham, “Trapped in Iran,” Economist, January 28, 2020; Michael Lipin and Farhad Pouladi, “Western-Based Persian Media Rebuke Iran for Harassing Journalists Covering Protests,” Voice of America, November 27, 2019.
 “[How far is the disagreement between the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence?]” BBC Persian, October 22, 2017; Laura Secor, “Why Is Iran Detaining Jason Rezaian?” New Yorker, August 15, 2014.
 “Iran: COVID-19 Disinformation Fact Sheet,” U.S. Department of State, March 23, 2020; Mike Pompeo, “Startling revelation by #Iran’s President @HassanRouhani that the regime’s concerted effort to lift U.S. sanctions isn’t about fighting the pandemic. It’s about cash for the regime’s leaders,” Twitter, March 28, 2020.
 “[Biography: Mohammad Javad Zarif (1338-)],” Hamshahri Online (Iran), accessed May 20, 2020.
 “[Seyed Abbas Mousavi],” Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed May 20, 2020; “[Hossein Jaberi Ansari],” Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed May 20, 2020.
 “[Iranians living in the United States meet with the President],” Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, September 17, 2017.
 Jones and Newlee; Hassan Dai, “Tehran’s soft-power reach extends all the way to Africa,” Jewish News Syndicate, November 12, 2018; Frud Bezhan, “Charges Against Cleric Put Iran’s Balkan Activities Under Spotlight,” Radio Farda, June 28, 2016.
 “[About Us],” Al-Mustafa International University, accessed May 20, 2020.
 Emanuele Ottolenghi, “Emerging External Influences in the Western Hemisphere,” Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, May 10, 2017.
 “[Al-Mustafa Society’s statement in response to Rumi Abdul Hamid’s claim about the origin of corona prevalence in Iran],” Pupils Association News Agency (Iran), March 16, 2016.
 “[Hojjatoleslam Sarvestani: Neutralizing the conspiracy of the arrogant media empire in undermining the services of the Islamic system is a serious mission of public relations],” Islamic Propaganda Organization, accessed May 20, 2020.
 For a detailed overview of IRIB, see Dershowitz and Katz.
 “Fort Apache,” Hispan TV (Iran), accessed June 15, 2020.
 Adam Payne, “Jeremy Corbyn was paid by an Iranian state TV station that was complicit in the forced confession of a tortured journalist,” Business Insider, July 2, 2016; Adam Payne, “Jeremy Corbyn finally talked about the money he received from Iran’s Press TV,” Business Insider, September 4, 2016.
 “[Which one has more budget? BBC or IRIB],” Magiran (Iran), January 4, 2017.
 Nathaniel Gleicher, “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From Iran,” Facebook, January 31, 2019; Nathaniel Gleicher, “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior from Iran, Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo,” Facebook, March 26, 2019.
 “April 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report,” Facebook, May 5, 2020; Ben Nimmo, C. Shawn Eib, Lea Ronzaud, Rodrigo Ferreira, Thomas Lederer, and Melanie Smith, “Iran’s Broadcaster: Inauthentic Behavior,” Graphika, May 2020.
 “US main factor behind biological warfare, coronavirus cover-up: Iran official,” Press TV (Iran), March 12, 2020.
 “Iran examining possibility of coronavirus being biowarfare,” Press TV (Iran), March 23, 2020.
 “Rodney Martin: Coronavirus Exhibiting Actual Paper Tiger of American Empire,” Fars News Agency (Iran), May 10, 2020; “Robert Fantina: Imam Khomeini Inspired Iranians to Shed Shackles of Brutal US Puppet Government,” Fars News Agency (Iran), May 26, 2020; “COVID-19 A ‘Bio-Weapon’, Iran Should Be Suspicious of US Aid Offer: Researcher,” Tasnim News Agency (Iran), March 24, 2020.
 “Lajos Szaszdi: US Aims Coronavirus at China, Iran,” Fars News Agency (Iran), May 6, 2020.
 Reza Haghighatnejad, “[Who is the source of Khamenei’s claim about the Iranian-specific corona?]” Radio Farda, March 3, 2020; Kasra Aarbi, “Iran Knows Who to Blame for the Virus: America and Israel,” Foreign Policy, March 19, 2020.
 “Pentagon and Al Saud against Muslim World,” ShiiteNews (Pakistan), August 6, 2016.
 Ben Nimmo, Camille Francois, C. Shawn Eib, and Lea Ronzaud, “Iran’s IUVM Turns To Coronavirus: Long-Running Iranian Influence Operation Returns to Social Media with Anti-US and Pro-China Messaging,” Graphika, April 2020; “Is coronavirus an American creation?” IUVM Press, February 24, 2020.
 “Iranian Investigation Blames Airlines for Virus Outbreak,” Asharq Al-Awsat (U.K.), May 20, 2020.
 Hessam Ghanatir, “Sycophantic Hardliners Rally Behind China’s Ambassador to Iran,” IranWire, April 7, 2020; Maryam Sinaiee, “Iran Guards Censure Health Official for Criticizing China’s Coronavirus Data,” Radio Farda, April 8, 2020; “[IRGC’s Political Office: Improper Statement by the Health Ministry’s Spokesperson Has Offended the Chinese Ambassador],” Iran International (Iran), April 8, 2020.
 “[What did the supreme leader mean by biological attack?]” Student News Network (Iran), March 13, 2020.
 “[Continuation of doubts about the origin of Corona],” Tasnim News Agency (Iran), March 13, 2020.
 “[The increasing probability of a biological attack by US against China scenario],” Javan Online (Iran), March 14, 2020.
 “[The order of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution to General Bagheri to form a Corona / Health headquarter should be formed].”
 Saeed Ghasseminejad and Richard Goldberg, “The Impact of Sanctions Two Years After U.S. Withdrawal From the Nuclear Deal,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, May 6, 2020; “IMF Says Iran’s GDP Will Decline By Six Percent In 2020,” Radio Farda, April 14, 2020.
 “Iranian Rial Exchange Rates,” Bonbast, accessed June 22, 2020.
 Maysam Behravesh, “The Untold Story of How Iran Botched the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2020; Robin Wright, “How Iran Became a New Epicenter of the Coronavirus Outbreak,” New Yorker, February 28, 2020.
 “Three Gulf states, Iraq report first coronavirus cases, linked to Iran,” Reuters, February 24, 2020; “Qatar reports first coronavirus case in man who returned from Iran,” Reuters, February 29, 2020.
 Jones and Newlee.
 “[Three reasons in favor of an American biological attack scenario],” Al-Alam Network, March 18, 2020.
 “China Demands US Drop Latest Sanctions Over Iran Oil,” Associated Press, September 26, 2019; Colum Lynch, “U.N. Calls for Rolling Back Sanctions to Battle Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2020.
 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “Startling revelation by #Iran’s President @HassanRouhani that the regime’s concerted effort to lift U.S. sanctions isn’t about fighting the pandemic. It’s about cash for the regime’s leaders,” Twitter, March 28, 2020.
 “OFAC FAQs: Iran Sanctions,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, accessed June 20, 2020; “Humanitarian Assistance and Related: Exports to the Iranian People,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 6, 2013; “Financial Channels to Facilitate Humanitarian Trade with Iran and Related Due Diligence and Reporting Expectations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 25, 2019; “Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 16, 2020.
 “Iran: COVID-19 Disinformation Fact Sheet;” “Treasury Designates Illicit Russia-Iran Oil Network Supporting the Assad Regime, Hizballah, and HAMAS,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, November 20, 2018; Jonathan Schanzer, “The Biggest Sanctions-Evasion Scheme in Recent History,” Atlantic, January 4, 2018.
 “Table 22. Gross Official Reserves,” International Monetary Fund, accessed May 20, 2020.