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Saudi-backed media promotes "Great Replacement" theory to Iranians
Iran International, an opposition channel backed by Saudi Arabia, is telling Iranians that their government is trying to flood the country with Afghan immigrants.
Saudi media seems to want Iranians to believe that their government is replacing them with Afghan immigrants. The Saudi-backed outlet Iran International ran a story on Monday slamming the Iranian government’s “unprecedented policy of opening the doors to Afghan immigration,” and promoting the idea that Tehran is “actively encouraging the growth of the Afghan population” as part of a scheme to “bolster its military” with foreign Shi’a Muslims.
The story comes amidst a rise in anti-Afghan sentiment within Iran and debates about Afghan immigration on Iranian state-controlled media. Two years after the fall of the Afghan republic, Afghan refugees’ welcome appears to be wearing thin, with Iran and Pakistan both announcing plans to deport millions of Afghans in the same week. A few days ago, gruesome video1 emerged of several Iranian Kurdish men beating and stabbing an Afghan.
Hardliners have labeled concerns about rising Afghan immigration as "Afghan-Phobia," defending the government's perceived "open borders" policy, despite public outcry.
The fast-growing Afghan population in Iran has given rise to protests on social media and even debates in Iran's government-controlled media, with many claiming that the government has a hidden agenda in letting thousands of Afghans enter the country illegally every day. Videos from the border regions show crowds of Afghans simply walking into Iran, and some claim that “a network” quickly helps find housing and jobs for them.
These claims echo the “Great Replacement,” a conspiracy theory first spread by white nationalist Renaud Camus, who believed that shadowy elites were attempting to make Europeans a minority in Europe by importing nonwhite immigrants. Some versions of the theory are explicitly antisemitic, blaming Jews for the alleged conspiracy. The Great Replacement has gained traction in American and Tunisian politics.
Iran International’s article makes no mention of the fact that the Iranian government itself is planning to deport millions of Afghan immigrants. Near the end, the article does concede that “hardliners” themselves are pushing anti-Afghan sentiment. The editors also chose to include two anonymous tweets, one Iranian government supporter celebrating Afghans’ contributions, and another showing Taliban supporters allegedly celebrating in an Iranian city.
Along with that article, Iran International also broadcast a relatively neutral straight news report in Persian on the Iranian foreign minister asking the Taliban government of Afghanistan to take back refugees. The station, which is quick to run with unverified social media reports, did not cover the video of the Afghan man being stabbed by Iranian Kurds.
Interestingly, the Arabic edition of Iran International also discussed media coverage of the Afghan issue — but criticized Iranian media for its “racist” attacks against refugees. Like the U.S. disinformation network unmasked last year, Iran International tells Arabs that the Iranian government is made of overbearing Persian nationalists, and Iranians that the same government is made of anti-Persian anti-nationalists.
If Iran International were purely interested in casting the Iranian government in a bad light, it may have decided to highlight the government’s role in stirring up anti-Afghan sentiment and repressing refugees. IranWire, an opposition outlet based in Britain, has often covered Iran’s exploitation of Afghan immigrants.
Encouraging Great Replacement theories does meet Saudi foreign policy goals. During the Saudi-Iranian normalization talks earlier this year, Saudi Arabia reportedly agreed tone down its support for Iranian opposition media. (Some reports specifically named Iran International as the media outlet in question.) Saudi-backed media has an incentive to keep its Iranian audience riled up and engaged, without seriously threatening the Iranian government.
Anti-Afghan sentiment causes social strife within Iran and puts pressure on the government, but in a way that doesn’t lead towards any revolutionary outcome. The Great Replacement theory directs Iranians’ anger towards their less-fortunate neighbors,2 while confusing the public about the true nature of government policy.
Finally, when journalists at outlets like IranWire or the BBC defend the rights of Afghan refugees, they can be dismissed as part of the conspiracy, thus boosting Iran International in the competition for pro-opposition viewers. Saudi Arabia has jealously guarded its market share within Iranian opposition media, and the leverage that comes with it.
The Iranian opposition’s other foreign backers, such as the United States and Israel, follow a similar policy. These foreign powers are mostly interested in co-opting the Iranian opposition to further their own soft power goals. Some of the methods used to co-opt the opposition have been incredibly damaging to Iranians’ solidarity, and some of the positions that foreign backers have pushed on the opposition are incredibly polarizing.
All of this makes change in Iran harder to achieve — which is not really opposed to the foreign powers’ goals. While many in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh would like to see the Islamic Republic fall in the future, their main priority is to gain leverage over Iran in the present. A painful, drawn-out process of social collapse may even serve this goal better than a swift revolution. The suffering of Iranians and Afghans in the meantime is of no consequence.
An additional note:
In general, there’s a pipeline for pushing destructive, fringe beliefs from American society into other countries’ mainstream politics. Some of it is just the normal result of American soft power. But prominent Western institutions also play a role in spreading vitriol and disinformation, especially in the Middle East.
Jason Brodsky, a former Iran International editor and American think-tanker, shared the Iran International’s anti-Afghan article approvingly on Twitter. He specifically quoted the claim that “authorities are actively encouraging the growth of the Afghan population.”
Brodsky has previously criticized “antisemitic tropes” in American society. As I wrote in my last piece on anti-Shi’a bigotry, Western policy circles are very careful to appear to appear moderate and tolerant on their own domestic politics, while freely laundering or endorsing vicious racism abroad.
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I’m not going to share or link to the video here.
One defense I’ve often heard for conspiracy theories in the Iranian opposition is that privileged outsiders just can’t understand the unique situation Iranians are up against. But in this case, Iranians are privileged relative to Afghans, and the anti-immigrant talking points are exactly the same as Western nativist rhetoric.