Is PBS doing its due diligence or offering itself as a mouthpiece for an Iranian propaganda campaign?
The Iranian regime’s PR campaign to avoid Western sanctions is aimed at neutralizing criticism of Iran’s crimes, including its global sponsorship of terrorism and human-rights abuses—executions without legal safeguards, ongoing use of torture, widespread arbitrary detentions, sharp limits on freedom of assembly, expression, and religious belief, discrimination against women, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as Iranian leaders’ hate rhetoric and eradicative threats against the Jewish state.
The campaign endeavors to show Iran as a bastion of religious tolerance for the small Jewish community that remains in the country. Iran’s historic Jewish community, which dates back to biblical times, dwindled from some 150,000 people living there in 1948 to under 9,000, with most of the decline occurring after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, under which it suffered most. The goal is to convince the Western public that the regime’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions do not reflect actual anti-Semitism, but rather an opposition to supporters of an evil and destructive Zionist enterprise.
Featured prominently in Iran’s sophisticated PR effort is Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh (sometimes transliterated as Siamak Moreh Sedgh), a Jewish physician, director of the Teheran Jewish community and the Iranian parliament’s token Jewish member. He is frequently quoted in the Western media denouncing Israel, extolling Jewish life in the Islamic Republic, and pushing for removal of punitive sanctions on Iran.
In 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani included Morsadegh in the delegation accompanying him to the U.N. General Assembly. While the Iranian president addressed the assembly to condemn Western sanctions on his country as “violent,” and portray critics of the regime as the only “threats to world peace and human security,” Morsadegh was there to bolster Rouhani’s proclamation of inter-faith peace and tolerance through his presence and media interviews in which he discussed the Iranian government’s indulgence toward its Jewish minority.
The PR trip achieved its goal, at least at CNN. That network relayed the Iranian leader’s claims of tolerance and ignored his attacks on Israel, which he accused of “institutionalized aggression” and “apartheid” policies. Comments by Rouhani were mistranslated to wrongly imply that he, unlike his Holocaust-denying predecessor, publicly acknowledged and condemned the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.
And Morsadegh was featured in a special segment by CNN correspondent Reza Sayah that presented a utopian portrait of a benevolent Islamic Iranian regime whose Jewish citizens enjoy the same religious freedoms as those living in the Jewish state of Israel.
At the time, CAMERA criticized CNN for what was, in effect, a promotional advertisement for Jewish life in Iran rather than the news investigation it pretended to be. Reza Sayah’s report concealed all controversial and unsavory historical facts regarding the treatment of Iran’s Jews since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, making no attempt to probe beyond an image of Islamic tolerance to provide an accurate picture of the Islamic regime’s attitude toward Jews over the past several decades.
There was, for example, no mention of the 1999 arrest of 13 Iranian Jews in Shiraz on charges of spying for the “Zionist regime,” no hint of the fact that more than 17 Jews were executed since the Revolution, mostly on charges of spying for Israel and the United States, including Jewish community leader Habib Elghanaian in 1979, and businessman Ruhollah Kadkhodah-Zadeh, hung in 1998 for allegedly helping other Iranian Jews emigrate to Israel, and no mention of the leadership’s Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Morsadegh was again included in a delegation of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Policy and National Security Committee sent to Paris in 2016, and he continued to give glowing interviews about Jewish life in Iran.
Journalist Reza Sayah left CNN in 2015 to become a correspondent for Al Jazeera and is now a free-lance journalist based in Tehran. He recently reprised the Jews in Iran segment for PBS NewsHour, hosted by Judy Woodruff, where he again interviewed Siaman Morsadegh, along with two other Iranian Jews who spoke through translators.
This time around, the segment was expanded to include more nuance. The protagonists—or whoever proposed and initiated the piece—had evidently learned from earlier criticism, and seemed more cognizant of the fact that overstatement results in a lack of credibility. This time, Sayah acknowledged skeptics and noted that “conditions for Jews in Iran have seen many ups and downs.” He mentioned that following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, “several Jews were arrested,” that “Habib Elghanian, a well-known Jewish businessman, was executed,” and that “fearing for their safety, many Jews left the country.” He noted that:
Not everything is perfect for Iran’s Jews. They’re still kept away from senior government and military positions. Some are believed to be closely monitored by Iran’s intelligence agencies, and many people question if they’re openly expressing their true feelings.
Nor did Morsadegh, for his part, cover up Iran’s history, as he did in the CNN interview, when he declared, “In the history of Iran, you cannot find even one time that there was any organized anti-Semitic phenomenon … .” Instead, he explained that the situation for the Jewish community was improving.
In contrast to the blunt propaganda offered five years ago on CNN, the new approach did not seek to erase all history of Iranian anti-Semitism, but to show an increasingly favorable situation for the religious minority in today’s Iran.
Ricki Hollander is a senior analyst at CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
Read the rest of the report at CAMERA.