How the ayatollah’s online trolls lure, discredit, and intimidate journalists halfway around the world.
LONDON — In all the years I lived and worked in Iran as a journalist, my only dealings with the Islamic Republic’s intelligence establishment were through regular meetings with my assigned monitors. That is, until a few weeks ago.
One Sunday evening in December, while sitting in London, I received a direct message on Twitter from an account belonging to a prominent TV presenter on the Persian-language network Manoto, Raha Etemadi. The channel, based in London, is enormously popular inside Iran, and its satellite signal is often scrambled by the Iranian authorities, who frown on its slick, Western-style entertainment shows and lightly oppositional news broadcasts. The message explained that the network was conducting an internal quality review and was reaching out to professional Iranian journalists for feedback on its programming. I examined the account, and it looked legitimate: many thousands of followers, a long history of appropriate-sounding tweets. I had no reason to doubt its authenticity and agreed to help. In subsequent direct messages, the presenter said that his colleague, Soheil Suduki, would follow up with me on Skype, for a short conversation. I passed along my Skype ID, and we set up a time.
The afternoon “Soheil” called me on Skype, I was at Waterloo Station, in its usual mad, commuting-time rush.
“It’s very loud in the background. Can’t you go anywhere quieter?” Soheil wasn’t especially polite, but being a bit rude is a young Tehrani affectation, and I suggested he call my cell phone instead.
He seemed intent on staying on Skype, and I obligingly found a Pret A Manger. In retrospect this seems to matter, because one is particularly unsuspecting in proximity to hundreds of pre-fabricated sandwiches in the middle of London.
Soheil asked me to turn on my Skype camera, explaining that his wasn’t working, but it made it so much easier to chat when you could see someone’s face. Again, I obliged. He said that the network was trying to rebrand itself as “more transparent” and asked whether I had any general thoughts on their programming. I admitted to only watching the reality dining shows and Googoosh Music Academy, an X Factor equivalent starring Iran’s most beloved pop diva, both of which I said were genuinely excellent.
Soheil, indifferent to my compliments, suddenly became very specific: “Do you think that if the supreme leader sends a message to the youth of Europe, that’s something we should cover in our news bulletin?”
“It depends on your audience and whether you think that news is relevant to them,” I said. I had just come from teaching journalism at my university and said some things about framing and audience reception theory. Soheil listened dutifully but did not seem interested in audience reception theory.
“So what do you actually think? Should we cover it?”
“It depends on whether you think your audience wants to hear it, or would consider it regime propaganda.” I might have used the word dictator, but for the life of me, I can’t remember.
Soheil switched tracks and asked me who I worked for. I said that I taught journalism, that I wasn’t working on Iran very much, and was more focused on reporting on the Islamic State.
“If we want to get a story placed in a major Western news outlet, about our rebranding, how would we go about that?”
Many Iranians, including the intelligence agents I dealt with in Iran, believe the Western media functions like the press under authoritarian regimes, with coverage formally dictated straight from the top. On many occasions, in both Tehran and in later years, authorities and others close to them have asked me who ordered up stories they didn’t like, assuming there was a chain of command you could map out, leading straight back to some official in Washington. The mechanics of this interested the authorities deeply, because in their eyes, it helped determine which journalists were spies.
I explained to Soheil that an internal review within a Persian-language network wasn’t really news and that to promote his network he would need to focus on outlets that covered Iran closely and, more importantly, to put that in greater context, perhaps as an opinion piece.
“You need an angle, a hook of some kind. Otherwise, it’s not really a story.”
Soheil did not seem to understand what a hook or an angle was, nor did he seem intrigued. I talked a bit more about how the news functions and suggested some outlets that might be interested in an opinion piece.
“But I was told you could help advise on how to get a piece placed in a newspaper,” he insisted.
He asked for names and email addresses.
“Can you tell me again who you work for?” It was the third time he had asked that question.
“I’ve been reporting on Iran for over 15 years. Did you even bother to Google me before calling?”
“Oh sorry, sorry,” he said with a laugh.
I ended the conversation, suggesting that he should send me some links to specific programs, as it was difficult to speak so generally about programming.
I didn’t think about it again until two weeks later, when I saw some tweets warning that the presenter’s Twitter account was fake. I felt my stomach clench, realizing in an instant what had happened. Everything I had dismissed as annoying and unprofessional about Soheil now became glaring warning signs. He had not been some hapless staffer at a network trying to improve itself, but an intelligence agent trying to get me to incriminate myself.
Now, somewhere on a hard drive in the bowels of some anonymous building in Tehran, there is video of me, with my hair uncovered, failing to show sufficient deference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Insulting him, of course, is a prosecutable crime in Iran and the most common charge leveled against inconvenient journalists.
Everything about my conversation with Soheil, in retrospect, bore the hallmarks of an intelligence-fishing operation. Like the agents in Tehran who believed journalists working for the Western media were often spies, Soheil thought there was a secret route I could provide him to getting stories into major newspapers. It was just a question of getting me to reveal how and who would help him.
I was reminded of how once, in Tehran, my intelligence minder was particularly exercised over a story I had written about a film appearance of Dawud Salahuddin, an American convert to Islam who had fled to Iran in 1980 after killing a former Shah-era diplomat in a Washington suburb. Salahuddin had appeared in director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film Kandahar but appeared in the credits under a different name. The story had come through the Time magazine office in New York, and I had done the Tehran reporting. Salahuddin was a sensitive figure for the Iranian authorities even then, before his reported association with CIA contractor Robert Levinson, who disappeared on an unapproved, covert assignment in Iran.
My intelligence minder simply could not accept that the story had just emerged on its own, likely believing it was somehow planted by the U.S. government. “Yes, sometimes there are leaks,” I told him. “But not every story is leaked, all the time, even if it embarrasses you.”
Soheil’s methods are commonplace in Tehran, where those critical of the regime, be they journalists or activists, find themselves entrapped by plots of all kinds, often involving sexual entrapment. What usually happens is that the target stops writing or gives up his work, to avoid embarrassing his family. The regime is especially fond of confessions or distorted interviews, extracted under duress, which it airs on prime-time television shows, like the infamous 20:30 program that documents the mechanics of purported Western plots.
Now that so many of us dual-national journalists have simply stopped traveling to Iran, the intelligence authorities are apparently coming to us, to create the material they need for their domestic propaganda purposes. To that end, if Soheil is planning on ever getting in touch again, I should like to save him the bother: To avoid being detained next time I dare to travel to Iran, I would like to pre-emptively confess to this now, in this space, and apologize for my flippancy. Should Ayatollah Khamenei ever wish to send a missive to the youth of Europe, I’m sure they would be receptive, and I believe that all Persian-language media, diaspora or otherwise, should cover that message with rapt attention. Was that all right, Soheil? Was my tone remorseful enough, or would you like to Skype again and film me saying it?
That the arm of Iranian intelligence was able to reach that far and that Soheil exploited my good will, listening to me drone on about how journalism works, when all he wanted was a pat confession to prop up his conspiracy-laced view of the world.
While these tactics are business as usual for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the state’s deep mistrust of its dual-national citizens, especially journalists, usually plays itself out in the shadows. Many have been banned from working inside Iran or have sustained harassment that has pushed them out of the country. Only when the state goes to its most extreme lengths — such as imprisoning journalists, like Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was released last month after 545 days in prison — does it make headlines.
Rezaian’s release, along with that of four other detained Iranian-Americans, was the product of lengthy negotiations, in which Iran was also able to secure some of its aims, including the appearance of pragmatism on the eve of the nuclear deal’s implementation. But it does not reflect any change in the reality that led to their detention in the first place. An influential core of Iran’s political establishment believes firmly that the United States is still bent on regime change and is pursuing that covert agenda with the aid of dual nationals. That conviction underpins a vast, generously funded program of surveillance — and in some cases, entrapment, like the plot in which I became wrapped up.
At heart, dual-national Iranians like me are often committed to making Iran a stronger country, with better media and more intelligent, experience-based knowledge of the world. That is what makes us dangerous to the regime, or at least to the elites within it who are determined to prevent any kind of real cultural rapprochement with the world. Since my “conversation” with Soheil, I’ve heard of other Iranian journalists he approached; some saw straight through him, and others, like me, bothered to share their real thoughts. One clever friend of mine rang the presenter, Raha Etemadi, himself in London, while Skyping with Soheil. “I know this is going to make you feel awful,” she said, “but I have the real Raha on the other line.”
While the release of Rezaian certainly marks a moment when Iran’s pragmatists won the upper hand, at least one Iranian-American, my friend, businessman Siamak Namazi, still remains in prison. And the sophisticated plot that targeted me reveals that the ideologically rigid, supremely paranoid branches of the state are whirring away, trying to locate and incriminate other dual-national Iranians — proving to themselves that for all our lofty talk, we are just evil-doers seeking to overthrow the regime, with no greater aspiration for Iran in our hearts.