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This is how war with Iran is manufactured

Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal was a top campaign priority for President Trump, one he accomplished in 2018. In a May 8 speech from the White House, he said the agreement was “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” He also claimed in a tweet the agreement increased Iran’s military budget, which CNN called misleading. When reporters from The Washington Post asked the source of the claim, the White House provided a Forbes article by an Iranian writer named Heshmat Alavi.

Alavi is described in his Forbes contributor biography as “an Iranian activist with a passion for equal rights.” His byline also appears in The Hill, The Daily Caller and The Federalist. The problem, however, is not only that President Trump may be using a misleading claim to support his decision to withdraw from an international nonproliferation agreement, but that the person who wrote about the claim may not exist, according to new reporting from The Intercept.

Alavi’s persona,” Murtaza Hussain writes in The Intercept, “is a propaganda operation run by the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which is known by the initials MEK.

Hassan Heyrani, a high-ranking defector from the MEK and one of Hussain’s sources, told The Intercept that Alavi’s persona is a group effort “run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK,” who are based in Albania. According to Heyrani, the group writes under a pseudonym partly because MEK abhors individuality. As Heyrani told The Intercept, “… the leader is the first man in the organization, and everything should be under their shadow.

MEK, Hussain explains, is “deeply unpopular” in Iran, and is now looking to English-speaking audiences in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. These are all places, Hussain writes, “whose foreign policies are crucial nodes in the MEK’s central goal of overthrowing the Iranian regime.

Creating a writer persona isn’t the MEK’s only attempt at disinformation. Reza Sadeghi, a former MEK member now living in Canada, told The Intercept, “We were always active in making false news stories to spread to the foreign press and in Iran.” MEK also donated money to various politicians and paid them to make speeches favorable to MEK.

Concentrating its campaigns outside of Iran is part of MEK’s strategy. As Massoud Khodabandeh, a former member of MEK’s intelligence department, told The Intercept, “The group barely produces content in Farsi. They seem to have given up on having a domestic audience in Iran. Their point now is to influence people in the English-speaking world. … Their online strategy works in Washington; it doesn’t work in Tehran.”

Hussain elaborates: "The MEK conducts relentless online information campaigns, using an army of bots to flood online debates about Iran with the group’s perspective. One of the goals of the MEK team that manages the Hesmat Alavi account, Heyrani said, is to get articles under Alavi’s name published in the American press. The Intercept’s requests for comment to the MEK’s political wing, along with interview requests to the alleged operators of Alavi’s persona, went unanswered."

Alavi was a successful creation, particularly in Forbes, which published 61 articles with his byline between April 2017 and April 2018. Many of the articles combined denunciations of the current Iranian regime with suggestions that MEK’s leader should be the leader of Iran. According to The Intercept, none of the outlets that published Alavi’s byline were able to confirm that they ever spoke with him. The Daily Caller said it stopped publishing him due to quality concerns. Forbes said it ended the relationship in 2018.

Before MEK’s articles influenced U.S. policymaking, MEK was listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department, due to its violent history, a classification that was removed as part of the Iran deal.

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