Washington as Mephistopheles, Iranian Opposition Edition

This past weekend (October 29-30), those in Iran’s government whose job it is to perform such tasks charged two women journalists with “being primary sources of news for foreign media” and also with being agents of the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies. The two journalists, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, were among the first to release photos and reportage on the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman who ran afoul of police enforcing Iran’s laws regarding the wearing of hijab and died in police custody. Beyond the absurdity and misogyny of the law–which attempts to enforce a very conservative understanding of a religious rule–the fact that law enforcement personnel are actually expected to enforce the law illustrates rather graphically the potential dangers of theocratic governments.

Leaving aside the many questions about what exactly happened in the interaction between Amini and the police, the news of her death and the propagation of that news provoked immediate and ongoing protests. Of course, it is somewhat impossible to know the size of these protests, just like it is difficult to ascertain the politics of them. Given Iranian history, especially since the 1979-80 revolution, it is reasonable to suggest that there are many university students involved. Of this group, many are sure to be women and live in urban areas. Reports from internet contacts inside the country write of participation by Kurdish and Baluchi citizens along with some support from oil workers councils, rural women, office workers and young people in general. In addition to agreeing with some of these reports, US media has been highlighting the violence of the police while showing cars and trash on fire. While the latter is typical riot coverage in US media, the violence of law enforcement is typically only negatively highlighted when Washington opposes the government that is deploying the police.

Anyhow, back to the aforementioned charges against the Iranian journalists. I have learned not to take criminal charges that are informed by a government’s politics literally. In other words, I question whether the two journalists charged are in the employ of the CIA or any other foreign agencies. However, whether they are or not, their journalism is being manipulated to serve those agencies and their agendas. One such example can be found in the early dissemination of the original report of Mahsa Amini’s arrest which appeared on the Twitter feed of Voice of America reporter Masih Alinejad. Alinejad works for the US propaganda agency US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). This taxpayer-funded agency was preceded by the United States Information Agency (USIA), an agency whose partial mission was “to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest….” (USIA: an overview”. USIA. August 1998). USAGM is the institution behind numerous media efforts like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti and the Middle East Broadcasting Network. All of USAGM’s endeavors are aimed at spreading the “good news” of US capitalism and militarism.

Upon its founding in 1953, President Eisenhower described USIA’s approach to propagandizing like this: “audiences would be more receptive to the American message if they were kept from identifying it as propaganda. Avowedly propagandistic materials from the United States might convince few, but the same viewpoints presented by the seemingly independent voices would be more persuasive.” (quoted in Kenneth Osgood’s. Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad. 2006.) The USAGM and its outlets continue this tradition. Because of their role in serving up propaganda, the agency’s media outlets are forbidden by law to broadcast to US domestic audiences and may only provide copies of their broadcasts to US residents “upon request, and whenever doing so is consistent with all statutory authorities, prohibitions, principles, and standards” for research. Despite its claims about principles of objectivity and the free exchange of information, one need look no further than the coverage of the war in Ukraine by the agency’s outlets to see the biased nature of its journalism. Like most mainstream journalism in the United States reporting on the conflict, there is little to nothing reported that does not suggest Ukraine’s moral superiority and Russia’s manifestation as evil incarnate. Facts regarding the politics, military moves and Ukrainian opposition to the war are at best secondary and in the case of the last item, not reported at all.

Alinejad is paid by the agency for her propagandizing and is apparently not shy about getting herself photographed with the likes of such great US champions of human rights; rightwing Christian neocon Mike Pompeo or Clinton era apologist for murderous sanctions, Madeline Albright. In a manner similar to Islamophobe Hirsi Ali and the one-time Islamic socialist Iranian revolutionary group People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI or MKK, as it is called in US media), Alenijad appears to have decided that aligning oneself with the greatest enemy of the people she claims to be supporting is the way to end those peoples’ oppression. At the same time, her campaign to encourage women to remove the hijab seems to have struck a chord among many Iranian women. A September 24, 2022 profile of her in the New Yorker suggests that her sense of self-importance has grown in size with her Twitter following. In that article, she is quoted in part, saying, “I’m leading this movement.” Earlier in the article she tells the New Yorker that, even though she is paid by the Voice of America, her activism is “separate.” That is rather disingenuous, given that it is her activism which helped her get the job and somewhat defines its focus. (That would be like me saying my antiwar and other activism was separate from the writing I do for Counterpunch and other media, when in actuality, it is part of that activism.) By taking this position and cashing Washington’s paychecks, Alinejad may be doing more harm to the rights of Iranians opposed to the socially reactionary policies of their government than good. Her employment by the US government makes it easy for the government in Tehran to label her as an enemy of Iran and its people, not just of the reactionary elements of the regime.

I’m not sure why opposition figures and groups in countries that are opposed to US imperialism and deprive a fair number of their residents of their human rights ally themselves with Washington. Perhaps it is the result of frustration. Perhaps it is the money that comes their way. Perhaps it is impatience. Whatever motivates them, it is important to remember that Faustian bargains never end well, unless one’s name is Mephistopheles.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com