In July, 2008, former Pakistan Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Baig went public with the charge that the U.S. was backing Jundullah operations based out of Balochistan province.
Jundullah claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the Amir al-Mohini mosque in the city of Zahedan on May 14, 2009, and said the target had Revolutionary Guards holding a meeting inside. Iran accused the U.S. of being behind the bombing.
Jalal Sayyah, an official at the governor’s office in Sistan-Baluchestan province, told state radio, “The terrorists, who were equipped by America in one of our neighboring countries, carried out this criminal act in their efforts to create religious conflict and fear and to influence the presidential election”. Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsooli similarly said, “Enemies try to influence the election by terror, just as they did in Zahedan yesterday…. The terror agents are neither Sunni nor Shiite but American and Israeli seeking a Sunni-Shiite divide.” Opposition candidate to President Ahmadinejad Mir-Hossein Mousavi also blamed “foreign forces” for the bombing.
The U.S. naturally denied the charge. “We condemn this terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms,” said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. “We do not sponsor any form of terrorism in Iran.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs issued a statement saying, “The United States strongly condemns the recent terrorist attacks in Iran…. The American people send their deepest condolences to the victims and their families. No cause justifies terrorism, and the United States condemns it in any form, in any country, against any people.”
The next day, gunmen attacked President Ahmadinejad’s campaign headquarters in Zahedan, and three men were arrested as they tried to escape. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that three people, including a child, had been wounded in the attack. According to Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-financed channel in Dubai, Jundullah had claimed responsibility for the attack.
On June 9, 2009, just days before the presidential election, the Iranian state news agency Press TV reported that the brother of Jundullah leader Abdel Malik Rigi, Abdulhamid Rigi, had confirmed in an interview that the U.S. had met with the group since 2005 and helped to arm them. He himself had also met with the Americans in Islamabad, Pakistan, he said, according to the report.
A ‘Velvet Revolution’
Two months before the election, Iran announced that its Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) had uncovered a plot to overthrow the regime and accused the Netherlands of conspiring with the U.S. and U.K. to provide financial support to opposition groups and websites for “anti-government activities” to bring about a “soft overthrow” of the government.
Following the disputed election that resulted in an overwhelming win for the incumbent candidate President Ahmadinejad, rallies erupted in the streets of Tehran, with protesters charging that the election had been fraudulent and calling for an annulment of the announced result. Protests in some cases turned into riots resulting in property destruction and acts of arson. State security forces responded violently to some protests, and the state-backed Basij militia was blamed for storming Tehran University and killing 13. The Basij was also blamed for other atrocities, including the murder of a young woman identified as Neda Agha Soltan. Neda was captured on a grisly video that has gone viral on the internet showing her lying in the street bleeding to death after apparently having been shot.
Amid the chaos and charges of foreign interference in the elections, Iran cracked down further on dissent, blocking websites and issuing a ban on foreign reporters. During the confusion, the social-networking internet site Twitter reportedly became an important means for protesters to organize and keep each other updated. A Twitter user posts brief updates (“tweets”) via a web browser or cell phone text messaging. Other users may subscribe to that user’s tweets to receive instant updates. Thus, despite efforts to block other internet sites, Iran could not put a stop to Twitter activity without blocking all SMS communications.
But the “Twitter Revolution”, as some Western media have dubbed it, may not be all it appears. Blogs in the U.S. exploded with unconfirmed reports based on anonymously submitted tweets, many ostensibly coming from inside Iran. But as the Washington Post observed, “It is hard to say how much twittering is actually going on inside Iran.”
While much of what was being Twittered has since been confirmed, there has been no shortage of dubious information going around. The New York Times observed that “just as Twitter has helped get out first-hand reports from Tehran, it has also spread inaccurate information, perhaps even disinformation.” Among the false information spread via Twitter and repeated by bloggers were: “That three millon protested in Tehran last weekend (more like a few hundred thousand); that the opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi was under house arrest (he was being watched); that the president of the election monitoring committee declared the election invalid last Saturday (not so).”
The popularity of the latter claim was in no small part due to a post by Andrew Sullivan in his popular blog “The Daily Dish” at The Atlantic. Sullivan reported, “Yes, the president of Iran’s own election monitoring commission has declared the result invalid and called for a do-over. That is huge news: when a regime’s own electoral monitors beak [sic] ranks, what chance does the regime have of persuading anyone in the world or Iran that it has democratic legitimacy?”
Sullivan linked to a Farsi language website as his source, Peykeiran.com, but Sullivan admittedly cannot read Farsi, so he was clearly merely relaying information he saw elsewhere, perhaps on Twitter, without attribution. Sullivan’s relayed claim, whatever its true origin, was promptly repeated in blogs across the net following his posting it at The Daily Dish.
But when shown the post and the linked-to page in Farsi, Kourosh Ziabari, an Iranian journalist and correspondent for Foreign Policy Journal, replied, “Actually, Andrew Sullivan has made a mistake, as far as I see. The one who asserted that the election results were invalid was Ali-Akbar Mohtashami, the Administrator for the Committee of Votes Preservation at the national campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi.” This is hardly the same “huge news” Sullivan claimed it to be.
The New York Times also observed that “Not only is it hard to be sure that what appears on Twitter is accurate, but some Twitterers may even be trying to trick you.” An example cited is that of fabricated posts purporting to be from ABC News reporter Jim Sciutto.
In that case, Sciutto said, the Iranian government attempted “to turn technology against the protesters. Officials have started a number of fake opposition pages on Twitter, which are tweeting propaganda and misleading information.”
Sciutto offered no evidence that it was actually the Iranian government that was responsible for Twittering in his name, but then, of course, it is easy to accept that the Iranian government is using Twitter to spread misinformation simply as a matter of faith. And yet, despite the great amount of false or unsubstantiated claims made by apparent supporters of the opposition, there’s reluctance on the part of the mainstream media and bloggers to attribute to it the word “propaganda”, much less to suggest that there might have been a coordinated effort by anti-regime groups or foreign intelligence services to spread misinformation or foment unrest.