RNA - The US government's favorite anti-Iran columnist Heshmat Alavi, whose articles have been used by Washington to push President Donald Trump's anti-Iran agenda, is an imaginary character spawned by the notorious terror group the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MEK or MKO), according to a new report.
American news outlet The Intercept made the explosive discovery after reaching out to Hassan Heyrani, a high-ranking defector from the group.
“Heshmat Alavi is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK,” said Heyrani, who noted he had direct knowledge of the operation. “They write whatever they are directed by their commanders and use this name to place articles in the press. This is not and has never been a real person.”
According to Heyrani, a team of MKO propaganda writers have been managing the fake character from the terrorist outfit's base in Albania, one of the many European countries hosting MKO members.
The Intercept wrote that in the buildup to Trump's decision to leave the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, the White House specifically tried to sway The Washington Post and other skeptical press by providing one of Alavi's contributions to Forbes as a "source."
“Iran’s current budget is funded largely through ‘oil, taxes, increasing bonds, [and] eliminating cash handouts or subsidies’ for Iranians, according to an article by a Forbes contributor, Heshmat Alavi, sent to us by a White House official,” read an article by Post reporters Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly.
Heyrani’s views on Alavi were confirmed by Sara Zahiri, a Farsi-language researcher who focuses on the MKO.
Zahiri, citing her sources among Iranian cybersecurity officials, said Tehran considers Alavi as a “group account” run by a team of MKO members and the person is nothing but a figment of their imagination.
This imaginary character, who identifies himself as “an Iranian activist with a passion for equal rights,” has also made similar contributions to The Hill, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, Saudi-owned al-Arabiya English, and many other outlets.
Interestingly, Alavi refused to respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment via Twitter or the Gmail address he used to correspond with the media.
Heyrani, who once coordinated MKO's online propaganda operations, told The Intercept that three members and a commander from the group's political wing were running the Alavi ruse. He provided the website with the four individuals' names and details.
One reason, Heyrani said, they preferred to hide behind the fake name was because "the MEK leadership would not look kindly on the fluent English speakers who operate the persona writing under their own names," according to the report.
Reza Sadeqi, a Canadian-based MKO defector, also confirmed Heyrani's account.
“We were always active in making false news stories to spread to the foreign press and in Iran,” said Sadeqi, who remained a member until 2008.
He was involved in lobbying activities in the United States, as well as operations at the MKO’s former base at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
“At Camp Ashraf, there were computers set up to do online information operations. Over the years, this activity got more intense with the introduction of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” he said.
The Intercept asked the editors who had worked with Alavi in various outlets over the past several years to confirm his identity. However, none of these outlets were able to confirm that they ever spoke with or met him in person.
He took no money for his work with Forbes, The Daily Caller, or The Diplomat either.
Alavi’s Twitter account has apparently attracted over 30,000 followers since its inception in 2014 and frequently shares articles and hashtags praising MKO terrorist chief Maryam Rajavi.
The Alavi article that the White House used in 2018 to justify Trump's exit from the landmark Iran deal cited unnamed "semi-official" Iranian sources to make its case and ended in a fashion similar to the author's other works.
The article praised Trump for ending “appeasement” policies towards Iran and chastising Europe for standing alongside the Iranian "regime" against the will of the Iranian people.
Last month, it was revealed that a German national, based in a neighborhood of Northwest London, is quietly financing an ad campaign designed to stoke a more forceful Washington policy toward Tehran as the tension between the two nations have risen due to hostile policies of US President Donald Trump and his hawkish advisers toward the Islamic Republic.
According to a report by The Daily Beast, Soheila Aligholi Mayelzadeh, the person behind the campaign, pushed in part under the guise of independent news and analysis, previously identified herself as a lobbyist for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that is a part of the Mojahedin-e Khaq Organization (MKO or MEK) terrorist group.
Since March, a company owned by Mayelzadeh has bought dozens of Facebook ads targeted at users in the United States promoting a more aggressive confrontation with Iran.
The paid ads have run on two Facebook pages. One is the official page of the the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO, also known as the MEK, PMOI and NCRI) terrorist group. The other is the page of an ostensibly independent news organization called Iran Focus.
The previously unreported advertising campaign shows how some leading opponents of the present Iranian government are attempting to capitalize on US momentum for a more aggressive policy toward Iran. It also reveals efforts to present that lobbying campaign not as the work of an organized political bloc but as supposedly independent foreign policy analysis.
The MKO has won some critical US allies in its push for regime change in Iran, most notably John Bolton, the White House National Security Adviser.
“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs,” Bolton told an annual MKO gathering in Paris in 2017, adding, “And that opposition is centered in this room today.”
The Facebook pages for the MKO and Iran Focus appear to be a part of that larger effort to sway US opinions on policy toward Iran.
Both pages began running ads on the same day in late March, according to Facebook’s archive of political ads. They’ve run dozens of ads since then, and while neither page is hugely popular — fewer than 4,000 “likes” between them — and the sums spent on those ads have been relatively small, about $7,500 total, they’ve managed to reach between 500,000 and 1.4 million US Facebook users over the last two months.
All of the money for those ads, according to Facebook’s archive, has come from a single company called All for Freedom. The London-based company’s website announced it “work[s] with charities and non-profit organisations to help them with events management and other services for them to achieve their charitable and humanitarian activities and goals”.
Corporate records in the UK list Mayelzadeh as All for Freedom’s only officer. She has ties to the NCRI going back decades. In 1995, Mayelzadeh donated to the campaign of former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH). She listed an address in the Virginia suburbs of DC, and her occupation as a “lobbyest” [sic] for the National Council of Resistance.
Attempts to reach Mayelzadeh were not successful. An email sent to the address listed on All for Freedom’s website was not returned.
The majority of the Facebook ads that the company has financed have simply promoted the pages and websites of the MKO and Iran Focus, all of which take a hard line on US policy towards Iran. Some ads, though, promote specific bits of content that advance the Iranian opposition’s views on the matter.
One recent ad on the MKO page recapped an NCRI press conference in early May and subsequent coverage of the event by The Washington Times. At the press conference, a top NCRI official called on the US to designate Iran’s intelligence service as a foreign terrorist organization and generally to “take a firmer stance against the bloody and violent Iranian regime”.
The event also got a positive write-up in Iran Focus, which describes itself as “an independent non-profit news service provider that focuses on events in Iran, Iraq and the Middle East with a network of specialists”.
Its coverage of late has leaned heavily on the US to step up a military confrontation with the Iranian government.
“Iran seems to understand only the language, the language of force,” one recent piece declared, adding that “they speak the universal language of bullies. And we all know what happens when you stand up to a bully… they back down". Another piece last week said the Iranian government has “benefited from impunity for far too long and it must face the consequences. Whatever they may be”.
The website appears to be less independent than it claims. It’s favorably covered the MKO and NCRI for years, but it appears to have some overt ties as well. According to domain registration data, the Iran Focus website was maintained by Mohammad Hanif Jazayeri, whom the NCRI website identifies as a spokesperson, until at least 2015, when the site anonymized that registration information.
Neither Iran Focus nor Jazayeri responded to questions about the news outlet’s relationship with the NCRI and MKO.
The latter is renowned for its foreign media, propaganda, and lobbying capabilities. Stolen US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show State Department staff repeatedly marveling at the MKO’s ability to promote its message abroad. One cable remarked on the group’s “extremely sophisticated international media and lobbying apparatus”.
Tensions mounted between Tehran and Washington last May, when Trump pulled his country out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and re-imposed harsh sanctions against the Islamic Republic in defiance of global criticism.
Trump and his hawkish advisers such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have since been stepping up pressure against Iranians.
The tensions saw a sharp rise on the first anniversary of Washington’s exit from the deal as the US moved to ratchet up pressure on Iran by tightening its oil sanctions and sending military reinforcements, including an aircraft carrier strike group, a squadron of B-52 bombers, and a battery of Patriot missiles, to the Persian Gulf region.