As part of the historic, Chinese-led Iran Saudi Arabia détente deal, multiple outlets have reported that Riyadh has agreed to stop funding or “tone down critical coverage of Iran” in Iran International, a high-profile English and Persian language outlet. Tehran accuses Iran International of supporting terrorism and engineering the 2022 anti-government protests. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, lauded the network as “a force to spread the truth and…the hope of freedom.”
Many were angered at the news. “Press freedom matters. It’s outrageous that Iran International is having their budget cut as a result of the Saudi-Iran normalization,” wrote Israeli-American journalist Emily Schrader.
Press freedom matters. It’s outrageous that @iranintl is having their budget cut as a result of the Saudi-Iran normalization. The fact IR would even make such a demand tells you everything you need to know about this terrorist Islamic Republic. #iranrevolution #pressfreedom pic.twitter.com/NqpNgbjtW4
— Emily Schrader – אמילי שריידר امیلی شریدر (@emilykschrader) March 13, 2023
Yet this casual acceptance of the idea that Iran International is little more than a front for the Saudi monarchy will have been groundbreaking news to millions of Iranians who rely on the channel and believe it to be an independent, trustworthy organization.
For their part, the outlet has strenuously challenged the notion. Speaking with MintPress, Adam Baillie, a producer and media liaison for Iran International, stated that they are “an entirely independent TV news channel with no state or political affiliation either within or outside Iran.” Baillie also pointed MintPress to a recent comment from a Saudi official stating that “we continue to assert that it is not a Saudi media outlet and has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. It is a private investment.”
WHO IS IRAN INTERNATIONAL?
While the exact source of its funding remains murky, Iran International clearly has some serious money behind it. Bursting onto the scene in 2017 and broadcasting from London, from day one it presented a highly-polished product to viewers. And reportedly offering salaries of double the going rate, it was able to poach many of the most famous and influential journalists in the field from its rivals, quickly building up a large audience. It did this all despite not running commercial advertising.
By not doing so, the channel is leaving significant money on the table. According to a survey by Netherlands-based GAMAAN, it is the most watched and among the most influential networks inside the Islamic Republic, as well as within the Iranian diaspora, and is regularly cited by Western media, including the BBC, The Guardian, Fox News and CNN.
Navid Zarrinnal, an Iranian Studies scholar from Stanford University, told MintPress that the network is near ubiquitous in some parts of Tehran, stating that,
Being in Iran all the time, I see many families have a satellite dish. And Iran International is one of the main things they watch. A lot of people tune in because they see it as presenting the contrarian perspective to the state (which is actually the Western representation of Iran).”
FANNING THE FLAMES OF PROTEST
While many Iranians insist Iran International is an unbiased source of information, even many Western outlets have dropped that pretense. For example, last week, The Economist – hardly a bastion of pro-Tehran sympathy – described Iran International as little more than an outlet dedicated to “air[ing] relentless criticism of the Iranian regime.”
This criticism helped bring worldwide attention to the Islamic Republic in September after the death in custody of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini. Although demonstrations were originally peaceful, they were quickly overtaken by much more violent altercations, particularly in the northwestern Kurdish region, leaving hundreds dead.
In the heat of the moment, Iran International was one of the primary sources of information for Iranians and foreigners alike, and the network consistently encouraged the world to believe police beat Amini to death. It regularly used the word “murder,” even in headlines, to describe her death. It also insinuated that the government was on its last legs, claiming that leaders were getting ready to flee to Venezuela.
Baillie told MintPress that while Iran International had covered the protests closely, it did not pick a side, stating,
We have not supported or promoted protests in Iran: we report news which, in the case of the current situation in Iran necessarily means covering a very wide range of events and the actors involved in them.”
Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Professor of English Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran and an advisor to the Iranian nuclear negotiations team, disagreed, telling MintPress that, “Iran International is very well-funded… It promotes violence in Iran.” During the protests, he claimed,
It and its guests called on people to attack and kill the police. It has said many times that murdering police officers is the morally correct thing to do. And [British media regulator] OFCOM, of course, does nothing about it. So that shows the hypocrisy of the British government.”
Zarrinnal took a slightly different position, explaining that the station also played a role in setting the agenda for international media, thereby influencing the worldwide coverage of events, stating,
What Iran International did many times was make a claim that was not substantiated; it was just an analyst who might say something. But they presented it as a factual claim. And then that claim gets cited in Western media, so it just got bigger and bigger…So it forms perceptions, not only in Iran, but also across the diaspora and internationally.”
One example of this is the debunked story that the Iranian government had announced that it would publicly execute 15,000 protestors in an orgy of violence. Iranian lawmakers called on the judiciary to issue harsh sentences to the protestors. Iran International suggested that this meant the death sentence. From there, however, like a worldwide game of telephone, the story morphed into the viral hoax that the government had already sentenced thousands to death – a notion promoted by the likes of Newsweek, celebrities such as Sophie Turner and Viola Davis, and even Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
THE SAUDI CONNECTION
The Iranian government has long demonized Iran International as a Saudi mouthpiece. Yet there is evidence suggesting there could be some merit to the charge. In 2018, The Guardian published an investigation, purportedly based on interviews with the network’s staff, claiming that Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) himself is the driving force behind its rise and that a Saudi firm closely associated with the ruler injected a cool quarter-billion dollars into its set up.
This money was kept secret, even from senior staff, many of whom were reportedly very unhappy with who was paying their generous salaries. “I was told that not even one Saudi rial is in the funding. If I knew it came from Saudi, I would not have joined the station,” one source told The Guardian, adding, “I can say that Iran International TV has turned into a platform … for ethnic partisanship and sectarianism.”
The same source went on to allege that many at the network have figured out the truth but cannot resign for fear of incurring repayments on their contracts or because their visas to continue living in London are dependent on Iran International’s sponsorship.
While Saudi money might be beyond the pale for some journalists, it is clear that top Iran International staff do not mind working for foreign, state-backed entities. News editor Shahed Alavi, for example, formerly worked for Voice of America, while presenter Niusha Saremi left a job at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to join the company’s ranks. Both Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are funded by the U.S. national security state and are part of what The New York Times called a “worldwide propaganda network built by the CIA.”
Iran International has also recruited heavily from the British state broadcaster, the BBC. In 2018, for instance, Sima Sabet left a longtime position as a presenter on the BBC World Service for a similar post at Iran International, while Nader Soltanpour quit BBC Persian to become the face of the new network. Just as with Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC enjoys an intimate relationship with the British national security state.
NETANYAHU’S FAVORITE STATION
The network airs a wide range of ideas and opinions, so much so that it could be said to be difficult to pin its ideology down. However, the one overarching and unmissable connecting theme of its coverage is hostility to the current political setup in Iran – one that has persisted since the revolution of 1979 that deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. It consistently highlights human rights problems in the country, especially those regarding the treatment of women and the LGBTQ+ communities. While Iran (like every country) does have issues with women’s rights, if it is truly being funded by Saudi Arabia, it is ironic that arguably the most oppressive government in modern history has suddenly found women’s and minority rights to be their cause célèbre.
Undoubtedly, though, Iran International has raised the profile of Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last shah, frequently interviewing him and presenting him as the next ruler of Iran. Last year, for example, it claimed that Pahlavi is the most popular figure in the country and that the large majority of Iranians supported regime change. Thus, Iran International finds itself calling for more democracy in Iran while simultaneously promoting the monarchy.
Pahlavi is far from the most controversial character it has promoted, however. The channel came in for widespread criticism for platforming the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), live broadcasting its rallies. The MEK is a Saudi-funded armed cult that has taken credit for a number of bombings and was previously designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
Another brush with terrorism came in 2018, when those responsible for the Ahvaz Attack, which killed 25 people and injured dozens more, claimed responsibility for the event via Iran International. Not long afterward, the network interviewed a guest who praised the attack, describing those hit as legitimate targets. The United Nations Security Council labeled the mass shooting event as a “heinous and cowardly terrorist attack.”
Yet while Iranian government-funded outlets like Press TV are banned in the West, British authorities cleared Iran International to keep broadcasting. Zarrinnal noted that, although Iranian media is far from exemplary, Iranians are actually exposed to a much wider range of opinions in media than in supposedly democratic countries.
“What is interesting to me is that you have easy access to anti-government perspectives. So you can just buy a satellite, turn on the TV, and you have anti-revolution perspectives you can consume easily. But here in the U.S., because they control the means of media production and distribution, you don’t really have access to these alternative perspectives,” he said, noting the blacklisting of foreign media such as RT or Press TV.
In addition to BBC Persian or Voice of America, Iranians can tune into the Saudi-funded MBC Persia network or read The Independent Persian, a Saudi-backed Persian-language outlet that shares the same branding as the British newspaper, The Independent, but is fully Saudi-operated.
Arguably the most controversial character that Iran International has supported, however, is Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an extended interview earlier this month, the network presented him as a voice for peace in the Middle East and a champion of the Iranian people, pitching him such softball questions as “what is your favorite Persian dish” and asking if he has many Iranian friends.
As much as the network was pro-Netanyahu, the far-right prime minister was even more effusive in his praise of them. “Iran International has gone international; it has become a force to spread the truth and to spread the hope of freedom. And I encourage you to continue that, both inside Iran and outside,” Netanyahu said.
While Saudi Arabia is doubtless trying to influence the Iranian public, those efforts pale into comparison with its attempts to co-opt Western media. In 2018, the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund injected $200 million into Penske media, owner of many influential titles such as Variety and Rolling Stone, and has been buying influence in Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
Vice Media, which brands itself as an edgy counterculture organization, has also signed a lucrative contract with Saudi Arabia, producing multiple documentaries touting the supposed social progress being made under the MBS dictatorship. The company has opened an office in Riyadh and organized a $20 million youth music festival in the kingdom, although it attempted to hide this fact by keeping its name off all contracts and asking employees to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Before the deal, Vice’s presentation of the country had been relatively adversarial. But, as media critic Adam Johnson has detailed, its critical coverage of Saudi Arabia dropped to zero overnight after they signed the funding agreements. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future; earlier this year, Vice agreed to an extensive content production partnership with Saudi-owned MBC Group.
Vice is far from the only big organization in bed with the Saudis, however. In 2018, American Media Inc., owners of titles such as Us Weekly, OK! and Men’s Journal, published a 97-page propaganda magazine extolling the virtues of the revolutionary visionary MBS and how he is transforming the country into a modern, 21st-century utopia. 200,000 copies were printed and distributed in stores across the country. Despite the fact that it carried zero advertising, American Media insisted that they received no Saudi money for doing so. Before publishing, however, they reached out to the Department of Justice to inquire whether they needed to register as an agent of a foreign power, undermining this claim.
CNN has also published a great deal of suspiciously positive content about the repressive Middle Eastern state. In 2020, it claimed that “freedom was blossoming” across the nation and that Saudi Arabia had “changed beyond recognition” for the good. Other CNN articles describe it as a “tourist destination to watch” thanks to MBS’ “epic efforts.” CNN did not respond to a request for information about these articles and their relationship with the Gulf kingdom.
The idea that Saudi Arabia has been transformed into an enlightened, progressive kingdom jars with reality. According to Human Rights Watch, the country is one of the most repressive and authoritarian in the world, where women are effectively the property of their male relatives and often need permission to work, travel or receive healthcare. Millions of immigrants are kept under slave-like conditions, and being gay is punishable by death. There is no freedom of religion. Children regularly receive corporal or even capital punishment; last week, a court upheld the decision to execute two young men for crimes committed while they were minors.
Likewise, the Saudis have been very active in the United Kingdom, paying millions to high-priced British public relations firms to soften their image. What Reporters Without Borders have called “checkbook diplomacy” has extended into the U.K. parliament, with dozens of MPs receiving trips and other gifts totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Tony Blair Institute, the pet project of the controversial former prime minister, has also received millions in funding from Riyadh.
Saudi companies widely accused of being front groups for the government have bought major chunks (between 25% and 50%) of influential newspapers, The Independent and The Evening Standard. Other big British outlets, including The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph, have taken Saudi money. Guardian readers, for example, have opened their newspapers to be greeted with large, half-page messages telling them that “He [MBS] is bringing change to Saudi Arabia” or that “He is empowering Saudi women.”
One reason the media has done close to zero investigations into the British war on Yemen is because Saudi Arabia buys 40% of UK arms—and our esteemed press corps take their priorities direct from the state.
Another is many outlets are directly funded by the Wahhabi dictatorship. pic.twitter.com/YqjwlpnEhr
— Matt Kennard (@kennardmatt) March 8, 2023
In less than six years of operations, Iran International has managed to build up a significant national and global following. Yet it has done so with the help of a pliant British state and through enormous injections of highly suspicious money – cash which is roundly assumed to be linked to the Saudi monarchy. This does not mean that they receive orders on the content or editorial direction from anyone. But if it is the case that it is secretly funded by the Saudi state, it is hard to see it as anything other than an elaborate influence operation to promote regime change in Tehran. Yet if the recent thaw in relations between the two nations turns into something more substantive, Iran International’s future could be as murky as its sources of income.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, an