Balkans a Battleground for Iranian Propaganda War
The Balkan region is full of easy targets for Iran in its confrontation with the US.
At the end of November, a appeared on the online platform Medium apparently posted by the New York Post journalist Mark Moore.
In it, the writer claiming to be Moore reported that Albania’s European Union accession hopes were threatened by its harbouring of an Iranian opposition group and cited the bloc’s then enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn.
Only Hahn had never raised such concerns, and Moore never wrote the piece.
Moore’s online identity, in fact, had been hijacked by an imposter spreading pro-Iranian propaganda, a tactic that would go into overdrive in the immediate aftermath of the January 3 killing of leading Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the spearhead of Iran’s Middle East influence, in a US drone strike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Iran responded with ballistic missile strikes aimed at US troops in Iraq, and among the frantic social media activity that followed there was a tweet claiming that hundreds of injured US soldiers had been taken to a hospital in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.
Sent from an unverified account bearing the name of an Israeli journalist working for the Haaretz newspaper, the tweet quickly went viral and was picked up by a number of Iranian and other media outlets in the region.
In fact, no soldiers were hurt in the strikes, and the Twitter account attributed to reporter Jack Khoury was suspended. It too had been hijacked, and was linked to a fake Mark Moore account that was also suspended the day of the Iranian attacks, according to an investigation by Daily Beast.
The fake Khoury account had not limited itself to the Middle East. Before its shutdown, the account had turned its sights on the Balkans too, pitching the fake Moore’s Medium story to a number of Balkan journalists.
The episode underscored the potential vulnerability of the Balkan region to any escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran, which may see Iran lash out at US interests or allies far from the Middle East in an effort to avoid direct confrontation.
“If the hostility with the US, as well as with Israel and Saudi Arabia, deepens, Iran might try to be more subversive against the interests of these countries, as the region is filled with easy targets affiliated with these countries,” said Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics.
In Albania, ‘Iran cannot win’
Iran has long bristled at Albania’s decision under a US-negotiated deal to provide safe haven in 2014 for around 3,000 members of the Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, MEK, previously located in Iraq.
Iran says MEK is a terrorist organisation. Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently criticized Albania for taking it in and referred to the country as “sinister”.
Khamenei accused MEK and the US of whipping up protests that shook the country in November 2019.
The fake Medium story said the group posed a threat to Albania’s EU integration, and the fake Khoury profile pitched it with tweets that read, “I’ve received important news from a friend of mine in the US to publish, but I can’t do so. First, it’s not related to the region which I work on, and second, I am under surveillance, as well as other Haaretz staff, due to some sensitive articles that we have published, and the whole Israeli parliamentary election.”
In October, prior to the unrest in Iran, Albania said it had thwarted a plan by an Iranian paramilitary cell to attack the Iranian exiles of MEK. Authorities said Iran’s Quds Forces, then led by Soleimani, stood behind the plot.
Albanian analysts question the effectiveness of any Iranian effort, official or otherwise, to spread propaganda in Albania and test the country’s loyalty to the US.
“Speaking about propaganda, this is a war Iran cannot win, especially in Albania,” said Erl Murati, editor-in-chief of the Albanian newspaper Gazeta Shqiptare.
“We are talking about one of the most pro-US countries in the world,” he told BIRN.
“Their propaganda is trying hard to portray the MEK in a bad light, calling them terrorists. They claim that the MEK could be a threat to Albania, too. But I don’t think this is true, since MEK members have been welcomed to Albania since 2014 and they live in peace and harmony with the locals.”
Tactics borrowed from the West
Iran’s own propaganda efforts are more than matched by its adversaries, security consultant and human rights activist Ali Nikouei said.
“More than 50 per cent of the false social media accounts fighting against the regime come from the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others,” Nikouei told BIRN.
The tactics used by Iran, he said, have already been well honed by the West.
“They have media outlets in different languages, cultural centres in different countries, funding NGOs in different countries, support religious groups,” Nikouei said.
“But I’d like to emphasise that Iran is not the only one doing this, many other countries that are involved with Iranian affairs are also doing it.”
Vuksanovic of the LSE said Iran’s activities in the Balkans had been focused precisely on “propaganda and indoctrination” via cultural exchanges and religious scholarship cooperation.
“Whether or not Iran will raise the ante on its propaganda, or any other activity in the region, depends on how threatened it feels,” he said.
Originally published at https://balkaninsight.com on January 22, 2020.