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Iranian Opposition TV Goes After BBC Over Criticism of Saudi Ties
Iran International made a documentary about a BBC reporter who privately questioned the network’s intentions and foreign backers.
A recording of a BBC reporter criticizing Iranian opposition TV was leaked last week, sparking discord in Persian-language media.
British-Iranian journalist Rana Rahimpour had privately insinuated that the media outlet Iran International was part of a Saudi project to hijack the Iranian opposition and spark a civil war. It clearly hit a nerve. After her comments were leaked, Iran International responded with a ten minute documentary portraying Rahimpour as an apologist for government brutality.
The question of foreign support for the Iranian opposition — as well as cooperation with ethnic-based opposition parties — has been a topic of bitter debate. Regime-change factions of the Iranian opposition have accused moderate elements in the diaspora of running cover for the Islamic Republic, sometimes dipping into conspiracy theories. And there is a historically deep wellspring of Iranian suspicion towards the British government, which funds the BBC.
The stakes are much higher now that Iran is experiencing a sustained popular uprising and waves of violent repression. As in other recent revolutions, the media has been a battlefield, both between the government and the opposition, and among opposition factions. With the government’s strangling of civil society inside Iran, diaspora circles and social media are particularly important forces this time around.
Both the BBC and Iran International have faced threats from the Iranian government, including an alleged plot to assassinate two Iran International journalists in recent days.
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Last week, a private phone conversation between Rahimpour and her mother in Iran was leaked online. Various versions of the recording have been circulating. The most complete version I could find still has significant gaps. Rahimpour says:
It’s just like an action movie. You don’t know what comes next. Who might come and become the leader? Who might hijack it? It’s not at all obvious what’s coming.
At this point, the recording is cut.
One of the worrying things that I heard yesterday was that Iran International staff were ordered to only interview leaders of parties in Iran, the Kurdish and Lor and Arab parties.1 You get what I’m hinting at.
The regional countries don’t want a democratic Iran. If Iran becomes democratic, if the women’s movement succeeds and they get their rights, Saudi Arabia will be the first to panic. These people are not standing behind Iran’s future. Instead, they are beating the drums of breaking up Iran in order to weaken it.
The level of violence from these young people lately, it scares me. The idea that it might turn into a civil war kept me up one night. They surrounded a basiji, beat him, threw him to the ground.2 While he was bleeding, they said, “next time we’ll cut your head off.”
The recording seems to have been cut again.
What’s a civil war like, in the streets? [unintelligible] It’s unpredictable.
And now the cyber armies are launching another wave of attacks at the BBC, directed by Iran International. They sent their reporters to protest outside the BBC headquarters. The media called it a popular protest against the BBC.
They are pushing for regime change at any cost.3
The recording is cut again.
[Iranian officials] complain that the nation’s eyes are still on BBC’s words. This really bothers them.
In an Instagram post, Rahimpour wrote that she had said “many things in private with my parents that I would never say in public.” She speculated that the Iranian government had tapped her phone and “selectively published words in order to create discord.”4
In an official statement, the BBC’s Persian service said that it “does not take an editorial position on events in Iran,” affirmed that private conversations are “irrelevant” to the reporters’ work, and called the leak of the conversation “unlawful.”
Pro-government media celebrated Rahimpour’s comments as proof of Iran International’s nefarious connections.
Iranian government leaders have called Iran International a “terrorist” outlet and threatened Saudi Arabia over its ties to the channel. Authorities jailed Elham Afkari, the sister of an executed activist, for allegedly working with the station.
Iran International is the flagship channel of Volant Media, a British company chaired by Adel Abdulkarim, a well-connected Saudi businessman. Saudi telecoms mogul Fahad Ibrahim Aldeghither was a major shareholder of Volant Media from 2016 to 2018.
The Saudi royal court funds Iran International, according to a Guardian report from 2018. The Guardian’s reporter saw documents suggesting that Iran International’s coverage of Saudi Arabia was being guided by Nabeel Al-Khatib, an editor at Saudi state-affiliated media.
Iran International issued a blanket denial of The Guardian’s reporting, asserting that it is a privately-owned channel with strict editorial standards and no relationship to any government.
Rahimpour’s comments echo many of the criticisms raised by The Guardian’s 2018 articles on Iran International.
After a mass shooting at an Iranian parade in September 2018, Iran International interviewed an Arab separatist leader who appeared to claim responsibility for the attack on air.5 British authorities conducted an inquiry and found that Iran International had committed no wrongdoing in its coverage of the attack.
And the station has provided live coverage of speeches by leaders of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a militant opposition group accused of torture and sexual abuse against its members. Saudi Arabia has cultivated ties to that group, with Prince Turki al-Faisal appearing at its events.
After Rahimpour’s tape was leaked, Iran International went on the offensive, releasing a report that juxtaposed some of her comments with rhetoric from Iranian officials and images of street protests. It also included footage of Rahimpour praying in a mosque, taken from an old French documentary, clearly meant to paint her as having Islamist sympathies.
“This is not the first time that Rana Rahimpour spread the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic’s officials,” the documentary states, citing her past criticism of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and her warnings that foreign intervention could be used to justify the Iranian government’s repression.
The documentary ends by describing Rana’s words as:
An apparently private attack on the revolutionary honor of people who sacrificed many lives for freedom. They are not listening to this Rana, but to the youth6 who have been killed, not only because they disagree [with the regime], but also in order to put blood in the veins of the freedom-loving people of Iran. Kurds, Lors, Arabs, Baloches, Gilaks. All of them together for Iran. Meanwhile, Rana is on the front page of the IRGC’s media outlets.7
The monologue plays over a video of a protester who was later killed, and a funeral. The messaging is not subtle.
The spat between Iran International and the BBC follows a familiar pattern. While diaspora outlets have become an important source of news inside Iran, their content is often consumed as short clips on social media rather than full broadcasts.
Several anonymous and semi-anonymous accounts present themselves as media monitors. Hafezeh Tarikhi tries to paint moderate diaspora figures as the Islamic Republic’s apologists. IranicTV, meanwhile, tries to paint hardline opposition figures as supporters of ethnic “separatism” and violent chaos. They often use clips that are deceptively cut or taken out of context.
The new element is that two established media outlets are publicly at odds. However, the campaign against BBC Persian has been a long time in the making, and Rahimpour’s comments may reflect some pent up frustration with the more hardline elements of the Iranian opposition.
In recent years, the Iranian government has repeatedly tried to intimidate BBC Persian reporters for their critical coverage of events in Iran. This intimidation includes police harassment of the BBC staff’s family members in Iran. Wiretapping Rahimpour’s parents fits that pattern.
Yesterday, BBC reporter Bahman Kalbasi confronted a pair of Iranian officials at the United Nations headquarters in New York, asking about the Iranian government’s lethal brutality towards protesters. One of the officials had Kalbasi ejected by police.
But opposition activists have also lashed out at the BBC, claiming that its reporters are part of an “Iran Lobby” whose soft coverage of Iran in Anglophone media is an obstacle to regime change.
At a protest in New York, demonstrators demanded that Kalbasi chant “death to the Islamic Republic” with them. (Such an act would probably violate the BBC’s neutrality standards.) When he walked away, members of the crowd booed him as “honorless,” a term often applied by protesters to members of the Iranian security forces.
Two months ago, Iranian opposition supporters protested outside the BBC headquarters in London chanting “BBC, shame on you!”
Saudi-affiliated voices seem to have a particularly sour view on the BBC. Reza Parchizadeh is a member of the Persian-language editorial board at Al Arabiya, an outlet openly owned by Saudi royals. He is a frequent critic of BBC Persian’s coverage.
The Mojahedin-e Khalq has embraced anti-BBC rhetoric as its official party line, encouraging social media campaigns against the station and posting “Ayatollah BBC” memes on its website.
That nickname has a much older lineage. Historically, Britain has been the subject of conspiracy theories in Iranian politics, given the long and violent history of actual British interference in Iran. During the 1953 coup d’etat in Iran, the British government ordered the BBC to broadcast a coded message to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
As the 1979 revolution was unfolding, the Shah’s outgoing government tried to paint Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a British Indian agent. That later gave birth to the idea, popular among Iranian monarchists, that Britain arranged the revolution to punish Iran for becoming too powerful.8 Adherents to this conspiracy theory often use the pun “Ayatollah BBC.”
Social media has allowed rumors to spread and develop much more quickly during the current uprising. It has also allowed the diaspora to play a much more active role in Iranian politics. That means that events in London and New York once considered a tempest in a teapot now reverberate loudly in Tehran. And the media spectacle itself is part of the story.
If the leaked conversation was the result of Iranian government wiretapping — as Rahimpour implied — then pro-government forces have successful exploited those dynamics to drive a wedge between their critics and opponents.
UPDATE: I added some additional context about Saudi Arabia’s role.
Lors are one of Iran’s ethnic minorities. While there are underground Kurdish and Arab nationalist parties in Iran, there is no serious Lor separatist movement to date.
A basiji is a member of the Resistance Mobilization Force, a paramilitary unit often sent to beat up protesters. There have been numerous videos of protesters overpowering and taking revenge on security forces.
Barandazi literally means “overthrow.” It has a specific political connotation akin to “regime change” in English.
Rahimpour also posted a heartfelt and sad reflection on what it means to cover her home country from exile. Because she deleted it, I will not be translating it, but I just want to mention it to emphasize what a shocking event this leak was for her.
There was an adjective before “youth” that I couldn’t make out.
The IRGC is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military with significant investments in the Iranian economy and media.