The fake letter from Iran & the mainstream media

This is a guest post by Mark

On August 8th, The Guardian breathlessly posted the “exclusive” letter in which 55 “political prisoners” in Iran wrote a “plea” to Barack Obama not to bring sanctions against Iran.  The BBC soon followed.

The Financial Times excitedly proclaimed that the letter

“must be seen as an opportunity to restore constructive interaction between Tehran and Washington.”

The idea that political prisoners would or could write such a letter is quite far-fetched. The Iranian prisoners supposedly cautioned Obama against “opposing democrats and popular forces in Iran.”

Considering their current predicaments, they are remarkably upbeat:

“We hope the opportunity created by the Iranian people and reflected in the electoral victory of President Rouhani will be seized appropriately by the United States.”

The prisoners are human rights activists, democrats, journalists, Christian pastors, and dissident Islamists. These signatories hold to radically differing ideological positions, and are held in different prisons across the country.

Yet together they have penned a highly nuanced essay which references American anti-proliferation laws from 2013, whilst praising Iran’s new “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani, who keeps them behind bars unfairly.

When did they find the time or motivation to do this? Do prisoners in Iran use Wi-Fi to keep themselves informed about the outside world, and then decide to write a collective essay about global politics?

The background of the prisoners chimes strangely with their message in the letter. The fearless human rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi was sentenced for ten years for “propaganda against the regime”. Suddenly she is less interested about human rights abuse within Iran, and instead is now calling sanctions against Iran a human rights abuse in itself.

Mostafa Bordbar is an Iranian convert to Christianity serving a ten-year sentence for apostasy. He began his sentence on July 31st 2013. Just days after his sentencing, is his first thought really to praise President Rouhani, when Rouhani’s regime jails him for crimes like joining a house church?

Iranian prisoners “doing media” have proved problematic in recent times. In 2012, Iran’s state-owned Press TV had its broadcasting licence in the UK revoked by Ofcom last year, after it filmed an interview with prisoner Maziar Bahari in which Bahari was clearly “under duress” and reading from a script, handed to him minutes earlier. Press TV would later accuse Bahari of being an MI6 agent. As the Bahari incident set a worrying precedent, it is worrying to see the prisoner letter being reported so plainly.

The Guardian reported recently that Iran spread false news about BBC Persian staff, even setting up fake blogs and social network accounts to undermine them. It is not a stretch to imagine Iran behaving in similar ways towards its own political prisoners.

Frankly, it is strange that the BBC reported this story as news. By doing so, it is hoping that the story might be true, rather than remembering the experience of its own staff.