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Why do Iranians think Lebanese are stealing their money? American disinformation
The idea that Arabs are living it up on the Iranian dime is a case of viral disinformation — which Washington encourages and no one will call out.
The Egyptian pop legend Amr Diab performed in Beirut last week. Lebanon has been suffering one of the worst peacetime economic crises ever, and the concert sparked a bit of a debate in Arab media. Some saw it as a rare moment of joy in a suffering country, and others as a lavish display of wealth when most Lebanese are facing dire conditions.
Iranians had quite a different take. On an Instagram video of the concert, users commented in Persian:
The TV always shows Lebanon as a skinny kid with a bloated stomach and torn clothes, eating a little yogurt with his fingers.
May our pallets [of cash] bring these people happiness.
Bro, [our] money got unfrozen, they should be celebrating.
Meanwhile, we’re here wondering if we have enough food to eat.
How we grieve for Arabs. I wish we stopped for a moment and looked out for ourselves.
The tragedy of Lebanon just kills me. Where can I get a visa?
While these comments seem tasteless, they are the logical conclusion of a talking point pushed by the U.S. government. Iranians are told that their money has been siphoned off by the government for the sake of Lebanon, Palestine, and other Arab causes. This belief has become a staple of Iranian opposition politics. It’s become popular on social media to caption videos of Lebanese or Palestinian celebrations with sarcastic comments about how those “oppressed” people are living off the Iranian dime.
In reality, Iranians are not losing much money to Lebanon or Palestine. Iran, like other empires, has learned to make the locals pay for the cost of being dominated. Tehran doles out low-cost weapons, training, intelligence, and seed funding to local militias; those militias then finance themselves through a combination of local donors, rent-seeking, and crime. The average Iranian gives pennies, if anything, to Lebanese and Palestinian militias. Those pennies are certainly not going to concerts, weddings — or Lebanese girls’ bikinis, as BBC reporter Nafiseh Kohnavard very patiently tried to explain to her Iranian audience.
Iranians do suffer, indirectly, from having an empire. Fearing the spread of Iranian power, the United States has decided to cut Iran down to size with punishing economic sanctions. U.S. officials falsely insist that the sanctions are not meant to hurt ordinary Iranians, and instead push the notion that Iranians’ money has been wasted by their own government “lining the pockets” of “terrorists” in Lebanon and Palestine.
Few independent voices are interested in challenging this notion, because they don’t want to be seen defending the Iranian government or its activities abroad. So the U.S. disinformation campaign has been incredibly successful, and taken on a life of its own.
The specific costs of Iran’s interventions is hard to track down, because the Iranian government is obviously secretive about its military and intelligence activities. However, estimates by Iran’s enemies provide a good maximum number to work with. (After all, no hawk in Washington or Tel Aviv has a reason to underestimate the Iranian military budget.) The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an American think tank with Israeli ties, estimated that Iran gave $16 billion per year to “terrorists and rogue regimes” in 2018.
The bulk of that number, $15 billion, was the alleged cost of propping up the Syrian government, much of which comes from Iranian loans and discount oil sales to Syria. Iran’s alleged funding to armed groups was much lower: $100 million per year to Palestinian guerrillas, $150 million per year to Iraqi militias, between $700 and $800 million per year to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and “anywhere from several million dollars per year to tens of millions” to Yemeni rebels.
At the same time, the U.S. State Department was bragging that its sanctions removed $50 billion in oil revenues from the Iranian economy every year, and rendered around $90 billion of Iranian reserves inaccessible in foreign bank accounts. (That’s not counting the effects of inflation and supply chain disruptions.) By the estimates of the Trump administration and its hawkish supporters, sanctions took at least three times more bread out of Iranians’ mouths per year than all the Arab proxies combined. The real ratio is probably higher.
Many will argue that sanctions are not the main cause of Iran’s economic misfortune. Indeed, domestic problems like corruption also eat away at Iranians’ livelihood far more than any Arab causes could. A single Iranian pension fund reportedly lost $400 million in 2022 to either embezzlement or mismanagement. Presumably, it was funneled into the pockets of a red-blooded Iranian oligarch, not Arab concertgoers. The greatest sums are not “stolen” by anyone; they disappear due to missed opportunities and waste.
Iranian aid matters more on the receiving end, but even the few Arabs who benefit from the militias don’t get all their money from Iran. Iraqi militias get a $2 billion annual budget from Iraq’s own government, and they also make significant sums from crime and side investments. Each militia has been paid $5 million per month from Iranian taxpayers, maximum, according to a Reuters report citing Iraqi sources; meanwhile, one of those militias could earn $6 million per month extorting a single Iraqi town. Qatar’s support to Palestinian rebels similarly overshadows any Iranian funding.
Syria is the place where Iran has intervened the most intensely. Iranian forces participated in city-destroying sieges to keep the Syrian government in power, and Iran now pumps discounted oil to keep alive a Syrian economy it helped bring to the brink of death. As far as I’m aware, no Iranian influencer is posting videos of Syrian parties and claiming that Iranian money paid for them. Portraying Iranians as victims and Syrians as beneficiaries of the war would just be too offensive, even by the venomous standards of Iranian politics.
Hezbollah may be the proxy with the most Iranian funding and the broadest range of beneficiaries, given its wide welfare network. However, it’s still not clear that a majority of Hezbollah’s funding even comes from Iranian sources. The U.S. government spends a lot of effort hunting down Lebanese expats for sending $2,500 donations to the militia. The focus on small-time diaspora fundraising suggests that Washington does not fully believe the astronomical numbers it claims for Iranian funding of Hezbollah.
“The most incorrect idea that the majority of Iranians have is that the money for Hezbollah and even Lebanon all comes from Iran,” said Kohnavard, the BBC reporter. “When I said this to the head of the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, he laughed, and showed through statistics that Lebanon gets a lot of income from [its diaspora in] Africa and some Arab countries.”
The diaspora may have also been a major source of funding for the Amr Diab concert. Tickets sold for $90 or more, which is also the monthly minimum wage in Lebanon, and 16,000 people turned up. Rather than the sons and daughters of Hezbollah commanders, many of those thousands were probably Lebanese expats whose Paris, New York, or Dubai salaries go much further in Lebanon. Many of those expats, especially those who enjoy pop concerts and clubs, undoubtedly see Hezbollah as an Iranian-imposed source of misery.
That captures another irony. Arabs who oppose the Iranian government believe that their countries have been drained for Iran’s benefit. Iranians who oppose the Iranian government, however, see completely the opposite picture: that Iran has been drained for Arabs’ benefit. (One Persian insult often thrown against the government is “Arab-worshiping.”) While Arab media often covers Iranian protests against the government, and Iranian opposition media often covers Arab protests against Iran, the actual discourse is not translated.
And this is on purpose. In 2022, researchers unmasked a network of fake accounts run by the U.S. military. Arab audiences were fed stories that portrayed Iran as the exploiter: Iranian dams are drying up Iraqi rivers and Iranian drug dealers are pushing meth onto Iraqi streets. Iranian audiences, meanwhile, were fed stories that painted Arabs as the beneficiaries. Some accounts actually argued that the Iranian government is taking food from poor Iranians to give to Lebanon.
The goal of the U.S. government, of course, isn’t to build solidarity between the oppressed Middle Eastern masses. (That might actually cause some headaches for U.S. policy.) It’s to rile people up against U.S. enemies as effectively as possible. Convincing Arabs that the Iranian empire is a dangerous intruder is a simple matter.
Convincing Iranians of the same is harder. After all, Iranian nationalists would be happy to hear their country is swinging its weight around. And as American and Russian antiwar activists have learned, moral appeals may make liberals feel guilty, but aren’t good at mobilizing mass protest against the country’s foreign policy.
The most effective way to turn Iranians against their empire is to tell them that their own wealth has been stolen for the sake of ungrateful foreigners. To be clear, this is disinformation. However, it meshes well with the Iranian government’s own propaganda. Tehran likes to sell its interventions as an act of charity to suffering Muslim nations looking for a protector.
Ironically, the same dynamic is unfolding in American politics. There’s a growing right-wing backlash against the idea of America as a global protector of democracy. Populists argue that American blood and treasure is being squandered on foreign do-gooding. Videos of alleged Ukrainian parties are increasingly used as outrage bait, with the implication that American taxpayers are paying for Kyiv’s wartime nightclub scene. Former president Donald Trump himself has complained about Washington squandering billions for the sake of ungrateful foreigners.
Trump’s answer was not to abolish the empire, but to demand more naked tribute from its subjects. The next Iranian populist leader may have a similar idea in mind, to somehow extract every rial that was “whisked away” to Lebanon and Palestine. American policymakers probably don’t care. They calculate that Iran will be so weak, and the Middle East so polarized, that it won’t matter either way.
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