In 2018, President Donald Trump was seeking to jettison the landmark nuclear deal that his predecessor had signed with Iran in 2015, and he was looking for ways to win over a skeptical press. The White House claimed that the nuclear deal had allowed Iran to increase its military budget, and Washington Post reporters Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly asked for a source. In response, the White House passed along an article published in Forbes by a writer named Heshmat Alavi.
“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,” Rizzo and Kelly reported. The White House had used Alavi’s article — itself partly drawn from Iranian sources — to justify its decision to terminate the agreement.
There’s a problem, though: Heshmat Alavi appears not to exist. Alavi’s persona is a propaganda operation run by the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which is known by the initials MEK, two sources told The Intercept.
“Heshmat Alavi is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK,” said Hassan Heyrani, a high-ranking defector from the MEK who said 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.”
Heyrani said the fake persona has been managed by a team of MEK operatives in Albania, where the group has one of its bases, and is used to spread its message online. Heyrani’s account is echoed by Sara Zahiri, a Farsi-language researcher who focuses on the MEK. Zahiri, who has sources among Iranian government cybersecurity officials, said that Alavi is known inside Iran to be a “group account” run by a team of MEK members and that Alavi himself does not exist.
Alavi, whose contributor biography on the Forbes website identifies him as “an Iranian activist with a passion for equal rights,” has published scores of articles on Iran over the past few years at Forbes, The Hill, the Daily Caller, The Federalist, Saudi-owned al-Arabiya English, and other outlets. (Alavi did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment by Twitter direct messages or at the Gmail address he used to correspond with news outlets.)
The articles published under Alavi’s name, as well as his social media presence, appear to have been a boon for the MEK. An opposition group deeply unpopular in Iran and known for its sophisticated propaganda, the MEK has over the past decade turned its attention to English-language audiences — especially in countries like the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom, whose foreign policies are crucial nodes in the MEK’s central goal of overthrowing the Iranian regime.
Alavi’s persona is said to be managed by a trio of MEK members. Heyrani, who at one time helped coordinate online operations for the group, named the individuals and a commander from MEK’s political wing who have been responsible for writing English-language articles and tweets under Heshmat Alavi’s name, and shared their photographs and names with The Intercept. “They were my friends. We were close friends,” Heyrani said. “We were working together.”
Heyrani explained that the MEK leadership would not look kindly on the fluent English speakers who operate the persona writing under their own names. Rank-and-file members, he said, are discouraged from having prominent public profiles — a reflection of what many critics have said is the MEK’s cult-like operating principles. “The leader of the organization doesn’t allow any person to use their real name,” said Heyrani, “because the leader is the first man in the organization, and everything should be under their shadow.”
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.
Another former MEK member now living in Canada, Reza Sadeghi, confirmed that the trio identified by Heyrani was involved with the group’s online information operations. Sadeghi was a member of the MEK until 2008, involved in lobbying activities in the United States, as well as operations at the MEK’s former base at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. He described a growing online propaganda center run by the group, intended to sway online discourse about Iran.
“We were always active in making false news stories to spread to the foreign press and in Iran,” Sadeghi said. “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.”
The MEK is among the most controversial groups seeking to depose the Iranian government. Although today it is mainly involved in political activism and lobbying, the group also has a history of violence. From 1997 until 2012, the MEK was listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department, a status that was finally revoked as part of a diplomatic deal struck by the Obama administration. The group’s last claimed violent attack was in 2001.
The MEK initially sided with the Islamic Revolution but fell out of favor shortly after the establishment of the clerical-led Islamic Republic. The subsequent crackdown forced the group into exile, operating between France and Iraq — where, thanks to Saddam Hussein’s largesse, the group occupied Camp Ashraf, used as a staging ground for its participation on Iraq’s side of the brutal Iran-Iraq War.
The years following the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq were harrowing for the MEK, complicated by the terrorist listing. As the Americans withdrew their military forces, they handed over security at the MEK’s Iraqi base to the Iraqi government; another round of violent crackdowns ensued. The 2012 deal to remove the MEK from the U.S. terror list facilitated the movement of thousands of MEK members from Iraq to Albania, where the group would be housed in a new secretive compound. It is from this base in Albania where, according to the MEK defector Heyrani, some of the MEK members managing the Alavi persona were said to be working.
Alavi’s articles tend to mix scathing denunciations of the Iranian government with not-so-subtle suggestions that it might be replaced by the MEK and its leader, Maryam Rajavi. The group seems to have had great success with Alavi, particularly at Forbes.
The Intercept reached out to editors at the outlets that Alavi has published articles with over the past several years. None of these outlets were able to confirm that they ever spoke with or met Alavi. He was not paid for his writing at Forbes, the Daily Caller, or the Diplomat, according to spokespeople for those publications.
Although Alavi has published articles about Iran in a number of predominantly right-leaning publications, by far the most frequent publisher of his articles is Forbes. In a span of a year, between April 2017 and April 2018, Alavi published a staggering 61 articles for the Forbes website.
A Twitter account created under Alavi’s name in 2014 boasts over 30,000 followers, including a number of journalists and D.C.-based conservative think tank employees. The account frequently shares articles and hashtags praising Rajavi and shares footage of protests and events held by the MEK.
Alavi seems to have gained some purchase in right-wing circles in Washington. In addition to his many articles published by Forbes and other sites, Alavi also appears to run a blog called “Iran Commentary,” which describes its mission as focusing on “issues related to Iran and the Middle East.” One of its reports was recently cited as a source in an article from the Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative site that takes an ultra-hawkish view on Iran.
The body of work published under Alavi’s name takes a consistently hawkish line toward the Iranian government and President Hassan Rouhani. Alavi’s articles also mixed criticisms of Iran and U.S. policy with overt advocacy for the MEK. His pieces in the Daily Caller, The Hill, and other outlets — though less numerous than his contributions to Forbes — employed a similar mix of advocacy against the Iranian regime and praise for the MEK. Though the MEK is known to be widely loathed among Iranians, Alavi described the group as the “main Iranian opposition group” in a 2017 Daily Caller article.
The Diplomat, a foreign policy website that published a handful of Alavi’s pieces in 2017, said that Alavi sent drafts from a Gmail account. Alavi pitched the outlet dozens of articles, though only a small number were accepted. The Diplomat stopped accepting pitches from Alavi after determining that his articles were not meeting publication standards, said a source who asked for anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The Daily Caller also told The Intercept that the outlet stopped publishing Alavi’s articles over concerns about the quality of his submissions. The Hill, al-Arabiya English, and The Federalist did not respond to requests for comment.
“We terminated our relationship with Heshmat Alvi in early 2018,” a Forbes spokesperson said in a statement to The Intercept. “For your background, all contributors to Forbes.com sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. If we discover a contributor has violated these terms, we investigate the case fully and end our relationship if appropriate.”
The MEK uses a number of means to gain influence in Washington. The group has paid prominent political figures to give speeches and press conferences, donated money to politicians, and disseminated its messages through these interlocutors’ appearances in media, as well as its own robust social media presence. In 2018, its social media operations were the subject of an Al Jazeera “Listening Post” documentary.
The group has used these public relations efforts to pursue its policy goals. Up until 2012, the MEK was mostly focused on getting itself off the U.S. terror list. In the years that followed, the group focused on attacking nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the U.S., and, after 2015, attacking the deal itself. Throughout, the MEK’s messaging has emphasized regime change — and attempted to present the MEK as a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic’s leadership, offering Rajavi, who has been the group’s public face for a decade and a half, as a potential figure to lead the country.
Alavi’s articles often track closely with these objectives. In his stories, Alavi has included positive references to Rajavi, as well as the MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. In an article in Forbes effectively calling for international support for regime change in Iran, Alavi wrote:
The time has come to set aside the “reformist” mirage in Iran. For decades, Maryam Rajavi, as President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is providing the sole, realistic alternative for Iran with a ten-point plan that enjoys the support of thousands of elected officials across the globe.
Like his focus on the MEK’s goal of elevating Rajavi, Alavi’s messaging has also lined up with the group’s efforts to attack the Iran nuclear deal. During the period between 2017 and 2018, when Alavi’s articles appeared in Forbes, the Trump administration was taking steps to extricate the U.S. from the deal, despite objections from European allies and former Obama administration officials. Alavi’s articles egged the administration on, with items such as “Iran Feeling The Heat From Trump On Nuclear Deal” and “How Trump Can Correctly Approach Iran’s Nuclear Deal.” In May 2018, Trump announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the agreement — one month after Alavi’s last article was published in Forbes.
The Alavi article that the White House offered to the Washington Post in 2018 to justify withdrawing from the nuclear deal cited semiofficial Iranian government sources to demonstrate increased military spending by Rouhani government. It concluded with a rhetorical flourish typical of Alavi’s articles, praising the Trump administration for ending “appeasement” policies toward Iran and chastising Europe for “standing alongside the murderous mullahs’ regime against the will of the Iranian people.”
Alavi’s tack — exerting pressure on political discourse in the United States, rather than in Iran itself — appears to be part of the MEK’s strategy.
“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,” said Massoud Khodabandeh, a former member of the MEK’s intelligence department who left the group in 1996. “Their online strategy works in Washington; it doesn’t work in Tehran.”
Alongside its social media strategy and periodic articles, the MEK involves itself in higher-stakes information campaigns. In 2002, the MEK helped reveal the existence of a covert Iranian nuclear facility near the city of Natanz. But according to arms control experts, the MEK got crucial details wrong. A 2006 article in the New Yorker also suggested that the intelligence may have been handed to the group by Israeli intelligence, calling into question the MEK’s claims that it operates a potent espionage network inside Iran.
In other instances, the MEK’s information has been less than reliable, causing skepticism among many Western national security analysts. During a 2015 press conference, MEK officials claimed to have evidence of a secret nuclear facility under construction in Iran, complete with clandestine photographs of the site. This claim was partly debunked by a blogger from the liberal website Daily Kos. A reverse image search of a picture of the purported door to the nuclear site revealed that it had actually been taken from a commercial website in Iran that advertised safe boxes.
The MEK has had the most success influencing the debate over Iran policy online through its aggressive social media presence. Any remarks about the group or even Iranian politics in general can be expected to be met by scores of MEK-supporters commenting through replies on Twitter and other social media. Many of the pro-MEK accounts will repeat the same messages, often word for word, swarming the mentions of any commentator.
Geoff Golberg, an expert on social media manipulation and founder of SocialCartograph, a social media mapping firm, took particular note of Alavi’s Twitter account, which appears to act as a node in an online campaign to boost the MEK’s profile. The account is heavily promoted by other pro-MEK accounts, as well as supporters of the group’s policy of confrontation toward Iran. To casual observers, these swarms of online activity can make it seem as though a large number of Iranians are enthusiastic about whatever it is that the MEK is promoting.
“The Heshmat Alavi account is part of a group of accounts, which, for years, have engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior,” said Golberg. “The account is connected to thousands of inauthentic MEK-focused accounts, many of which regularly engage with the account’s tweets. The goal of these efforts is to create the illusion of a larger support base than exists in reality.”
Alavi has left few traces online — aside from his social media, his articles, and his emails to editors. One single photo, a heavily filtered side profile, is used for all of Alavi’s author profiles, his LinkedIn page, and Twitter account. The photo’s origins are unclear.
At a minimum, there are strong indications that the Alavi persona is not what it claims to be. The use of fake identities to conduct political propaganda has become common in recent years. The 2016 U.S. presidential election saw the use of innumerable bots and fake accounts to spread misinformation and paranoia among the public.
A 2018 BBC News investigation looked into another prominent online persona alleged to be false: a Twitter account operating under the name “Sarah Abdallah” that was mixed up heavily in the online debate over the war in Syria. The Sarah Abdallah account was in some ways on the opposite side of the political spectrum as Alavi: Abdallah was a vocal supporter of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, a close Iranian ally. An online research firm determined Abdallah’s account to be “one of the most influential social media accounts in the online conversation about Syria.”
Although the BBC investigation raised serious concerns about the influence of a shadowy online account that was being followed by hundreds of real journalists, it stopped short of concluding that Abdallah was fake or being operated by a front organization.
For all her influence, however, Sarah Abdallah was never able to achieve the success of Heshmat Alavi, whose articles were published in U.S. media outlets and read in the White House.
To those unfamiliar with the internal politics of Iran, Alavi could come across in his writings as what he simply claimed to be: “an Iranian activist with a passion for equal rights.” The former MEK member Heyrani says that this framing is exactly what the group was hoping to create with the persona. To the extent that publications like Forbes were indifferent or amenable to Alavi’s message, it seems to have worked.
“The Mojahedin” — the Iranian name for the MEK — “wants to show to the world that their narrative has support, even from people who are not directly members of the group,” Heyrani said. “They want to show that other independent people — writers and activists — support their approach and believe that freedom and democracy will come to Iran through the work of this group.”
Update: June 11, 2019
Several hours after the publication of this article, the Heshmat Alavi account was suspended by Twitter. Shortly thereafter, an account bearing Alavi’s name on QuodVerum, an alternative social media site, published a post that said The Intercept’s “article raises many lies against me & was heavily promoted by pro-Iran regime accounts on Twitter. I was not given a chance to reply.” (In the weeks and months before publication, The Intercept sent several requests for comment to the Gmail address Alavi used to communicate with various editors at news outlets, and also sent direct messages to the Alavi account on Twitter.) In the QuodVerum post, the Alavi account asked Twitter users to use Twitter to advocate for an end to his suspension from the platform.
In a subsequent post on his blog, Iran Commentary, a user claiming to be Alavi again asked readers to use Twitter to push for his suspension to end. The author went on to concede that Alavi is not the user’s real name, nor do the profile photos employed by Alavi’s accounts belong to the user: “Firstly: No, I will never reveal my real identity or photograph. Not as long as the mullahs’ regime is in power. No activist in his/her right mind would do so. That would place all of my family, friends and myself, both inside & outside of Iran, in complete danger.” The author continued, “Secondly: I will not reply to any emails or messages of any kind from The Intercept because their intentions are obvious as a biased, left-wing outlet. They don’t deserve my reply.”
In the Iran Commentary post, Alavi explained his advocacy for the MEK: “Why do I support the MEK? 1) They have an organization. 2) They have an agenda. 3) They are serious and dedicated.”
Separately, the Forbes author page for Alavi appears to have been taken offline and The Diplomat, citing The Intercept’s investigation, retracted the five articles Alavi authored on the site, appending an editor’s note to the stories. “A June 2019 investigation revealed that this article was authored by a false persona,” said the editor’s note. “Accordingly, this article has been retracted in full for not meeting our standards on authorship disclosure. The Diplomat regrets this situation.”