Even after spending a year and a half in prison in Tehran, I knew that if I wanted to go on writing about Iran, I would be a target for plenty of public attacks despite the abuse I had suffered at the hands of the Islamic Republic. And so it has been.
But I never imagined the U.S. State Department would be funding my attackers.
Last week, several astute Iran watchers drew attention to a series of inflammatory tweets associated with the Iran Disinformation Project, a State Department-funded initiative that its website claims “brings to light disinformation emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran via official rhetoric, state propaganda outlets, social media manipulation and more.”
On Friday, in response to the complaints, the State Department suspended the initiative’s funding “until the implementer takes necessary steps to ensure that any future activity remains within the agreed scope of work,” a department official said.
One of the “steps” thus far has been to delete many of the tweets in question. But that is hardly sufficient.
Ironically, the Iran Disinformation Project was funded by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which was begun to combat online extremism and propaganda.
The targets of the tweets included think-tank analysts, human rights activists and journalists (including me). The common thread is that we are all perceived by regime change proponents and supporters of the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure policy to be soft on Iran because we are critical of crushing economic sanctions and the threat of the use of military force against it.
For these thought crimes, we are branded by @IranDisinfo and similar social media accounts as Tehran’s “mouthpieces,” “apologists,” “collaborators,” and “lobbyists” in the West.
I won’t speak for others who have been attacked, and my own views are irrelevant to this situation. From what I can see, though, we all appear to share the view that Iran should be secular and democratic. The main difference between us and those spreading these falsehoods against us is how we envision that change in Iranian politics coming about.
As a matter of principle, I try to avoid impeding anyone else’s right to free expression — even when it’s used to attack me. If a claim against me is demonstrably false, I will state it clearly and openly. Yet, I believe it’s important to allow others — even faceless ones hiding behind anonymous social media accounts — the opportunity to criticize me, my work and my credentials. It’s part of what you sign up for when you take this job.
I also openly acknowledge that others who have been abused by Iran (such as me) have the right to hold whatever political positions they choose and the right to defend and promote them passionately. Yes, even if it means they advocate war or sanctions directed at the people of that country. They have their views and I have mine.
Slander and libel are a different story, however, and @IranDisinfo may have crossed the line.
So we’re faced with the irony that an initiative aimed at combating Tehran’s disinformation campaigns is resorting to disinformation campaigns of its own, using taxpayer funds to spread lies about U.S. citizens. We need programs that fight the spread of falsehoods and propaganda, but such efforts shouldn’t combat lies with other lies — and certainly not with public funding.
This is just one more small incident in the long moment of reckoning our democracy is facing. It will pass quickly, but it’s an important stress test.
How can individuals who are not willing to adhere to the norms of American civil society be entrusted with resources to promote civil society in other countries?
The State Department can easily fix the problem. It needs to perform a transparent assessment of who received the funding and why. Once the facts are clear, the grant should be terminated.
Transparency and accountability are fundamental to the rule of law. Anyone who claims otherwise cannot be entrusted with taxpayer money to promote American ideals — at home or abroad.
At the heart of the matter lies a fundamental question: Do we support our long-cherished ideals of democratic fair play or the “by any means necessary” approach that is becoming more prevalent in the current political climate?
Put personal politics aside for a moment and look back through history. Do peddlers of disinformation contribute or detract from our health as a society? The answer is obvious, and the State Department should take a clear stance on the side of honest and responsible discourse.
If the State Department declines to address the issue, Congress should investigate.