EXCLUSIVE: Iran’s shadowy UK network revealed

How Tehran seeks to destabilise the West


The staggering scale of Iran’s global disinformation network can be revealed today by the JC, in a dossier that has been passed to GCHQ.

Hundreds of Tehran-based websites and many thousands of social media accounts are spewing out antisemitic propaganda, pushing an Iranian agenda and sowing seeds of discord in Western countries.

These sites and accounts — which we forensically traced to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — routinely disseminate viciously antisemitic material, including cartoons of bloodthirsty Israeli soldiers in league with Saudi Arabia and the United States, and extensive Holocaust denial.

In signs of their attempts to destabilise British society, the Iran-run sites strategically praised British leftwing figures like Rebecca Long-Bailey and George Galloway, attempted to undermine the authority of the BBC over its coverage of Prince Philip’s death, and carried anti-British cartoons showing UK missiles fired at children.

In March, the JC disclosed Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon’s ties to hardline Tehran sympathisers, exposing how Iran is supporting the SNP in an apparent bid to fracture British unity.

In related developments:

- The FBI closed down dozens of Iranian news sites accused of spreading disinformation — including state-owned Press TV and al-Masirah TV, run by Yemen’s pro-Iran Houthi movement — on Tuesday (though several were online again within hours at new domains);

-  On Friday, Iran elected a controversial new ultra-conservative president, Ebrahim ‘the Butcher’ Raisi, who was responsible for the massacre of 30,000 activists in Iranian prisons in 1988;

- The Henry Jackson Society thinktank published a report revealing how Iran is actively interfering in British political, cultural and religious life, both in the real world and online, including in Scotland.

Last October, the American Department of Justice made headlines when it announced that it had shut down over 100 web domains traced to the IRGC.

These included “global covert influence campaign” sites with names like Real Progressive Front, American Herald Tribune, Another Western Dawn News and Critical Studies.

George Galloway, the firebrand former MP who contested the Batley and Spen by-election this week, has written for the American Herald Tribune.

Our investigation disclosed that many of the websites shut down by the Department of Justice are still operational, having simply migrated to slightly different web addresses.

The disinformation sites target numerous countries in different languages, representing a concerted Iranian effort to influence hearts and minds across the globe.

The scale and depth of the Iranian online propaganda operation is revealed as Western powers continue to negotiate a return to President Obama’s nuclear deal under his former protégé Joe Biden.

While American and European diplomats sit around a table with regime representatives, western enforcement agencies are locked in a game of cat-and-mouse with propaganda sites that pop up faster than they can be closed down.

In a 100-page report published this month, the Henry Jackson Society disclosed how Tehran possesses a “determined network of supporters within Parliament” who lobby for its geopolitical interests.

A number of British charities, schools and mosques have ties to the regime, it said, and these real-world efforts are supported by a wave of online propaganda.

The report’s author, Dr Paul Stott, said: “The Iranian government is a hostile one.

“It holds British citizens hostage, using them as bargaining chips, and seeks to interfere in the constitutional arrangements of the UK via the tool of online disinformation.”

He added: “Regardless of the negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Iran also seeks to weaken our social cohesion.”

Key nodes in Tehran’s disinformation network, uncovered by the JC, include the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), an umbrella organisation that spreads Iranian government narratives and spawns new sites and social media accounts.

Our investigation found that IUVM is one of a series of IRGC-linked ‘archive’ sites that contain a wealth of material – including articles, pictures, cartoons and videos – pushing an Iranian agenda.

These free resources provide instant content to feed new pro-regime sites or social media ‘bots’, or automated accounts that masquerade as human users, some of which pose as journalists or official news sources.

The IRGC uses social media ‘botnets’ to amplify antisemitic and anti-Israel narratives in an attempt to sway public opinion via Twitter in countries across the globe.

A botnet is a network of bots that can be used to echo official state propaganda to give it greater impact.

They tweet and retweet messages with identical text or common themes en masse, to get certain topics trending.

Detecting bots has become increasingly difficult as spammers, hackers and propagandists use new techniques to evade detection by the big tech firms.

Archived articles on the IUVM site, for use by bots and new propaganda sites, include: ‘Lifting the siege of the Palestinian people is now important and necessary’, and ‘the crimes of the Israel regime are a war crime that must be punished according to international law’.

Another archive, styled as an online Islamic ‘academy’, contained archives of religious tracts and speeches and articles written by Shiite clerics, to aid in the Islamic propaganda war around the world.

The IUVM news website appears at first glance to resemble a legitimate outlet.

Its English language version, IUVM Press, was shut down by the Department of Justice last year, but remains live after switching its name from .net to .news.

This week, its top stories were headlined: ‘The USA is the world’s mass destruction machine’ and ‘Putting lipstick on a pig: Why Washington is fawning over Israel’s new government’.

It has attempted to sow discord in the West by peddling conspiracy theories about Covid-19, including blaming America for the virus.

The IUVM also focusses on other regions, producing Syria-related propaganda on both Facebook and YouTube while evading social media moderators by adding a hyphen to its name.

Another key node in Iran’s disinformation network which focusses on Britain is a TV station linked to the IRGC called Vision Plus.

In a leading article last year, it praised hard-left Labour Party MP Rebecca Long-Bailey for saying that she would “never apologise” for supporting the Palestinians.

Another story, published on 25 April, criticised the BBC for “moment to moment coverage of the death of a 99-year-old man (the Duke of Edinburgh)” when British missiles had allegedly killed two children in Yemen.

The story appeared timed to damage trust in the corporation by capitalising on Ofcom complaints about the extensive coverage of Prince Phillip’s death.

Like other Iranian propaganda outlets, Vision Plus has outwitted enforcement agencies by changing its name.

It was originally called MWF Press. The station still operates under that handle on Telegram, where it has 6,501 subscribers.

Although its Twitter account has been suspended, it still has almost 25,000 followers on Instagram and 2,500 on Facebook. Its YouTube channel, The Fact Series, has about 1,100 subscribers.

One of the videos featured an interview with the controversial British journalist Yvonne Ridley, who shot to fame in 2001 after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ms Ridley, who has more than 45,000 Twitter followers, converted to Islam and became a virulent critic of Israel and the United States. She is a former chair of the national council of George Galloway’s now-defunct Respect Party.

Mr Galloway, who was sacked from TalkRadio after claiming Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League defeat meant there would be “no Israel flags on the cup”, was polling at six per cent in Batley and Spen before the vote this week.

Iran’s online propaganda network is not limited to attacks on Britain and the West. Another of its key assets is the Iraq-based Al-Ghadeer TV, now active under a .net address after the original .tv version was shut down in December.

Al-Ghadeer is a Baghdad-based satellite television station owned by the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iranian militia which has been compared with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As the Badr Brigades, the IRGC-backed Shia force attacked US troops after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Tehran-run website trumpets blatant Iranian propaganda, advertising the supposed success of the country’s ‘Fakhra’ anti-Covid vaccine.

It also claimed that Iranian electricity firms were poised to win big contracts in Iraq, and claimed that “the Zionists want revenge on the Iranian people” due to Tehran’s supposed success in getting sanctions eased.

Al-Ghadeer operates at least eight social media accounts. On Instagram, it has 200,000 followers, while on YouTube it has nearly 85,000 subscribers.

More than 64,000 people are following its page on Facebook, and it has 1,270 fans on TikTok.

Al-Ghadeer also has 19,000 subscribers to its Telegram channel, which often pushes out anti-Israel material.

Its main Twitter account, which has pumped out over 80,000 tweets, has 390,000 followers.

An analysis shows that many of these are bots, which amplify tweets and get hashtags trending in an effort to manipulate public opinion.

This was seen in action in May, when it intensely disseminated the #QudsDay hashtag.

Quds Day is an annual event initiated by Iran in 1978 to express hatred of Israel and the West and support for the Palestinians. It is known for its volatile crowds and flag-burning.

On 7 May, Al-Ghadeer tweeted comments made by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khanenei, describing Israel as a “terrorist camp” hostile to the Muslim world, including the hashtag #QudsDay.

Tens of thousands of Twitter users cited the hashtag, including the BBC Hindi service, which has 3.5 million followers; BBC presenter Rasha Qandeel, who has more than 270,000 followers; BBC Middle East editor Sebastian Usher, and Dutch ex-MEP Bas Belder. This greatly extended its reach and authority.

An analysis of the 782 most popular tweets showed that 282 were likely posted by bot accounts. Four hundred were judged to be sent by humans, while 100 were unclassified.

Iran’s state-owned television outlet, Press TV, issued 16 tweets in English using the hashtag. It was joined by other Iranian media outlets, including Tasnim News Agency, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), ILKE news Agency, and Mehr News Agency.

Many Quds Day messages were re-tweets from an account called Soureh Design, which claimed to be run by a student in Tehran, which apparently showed huge Quds Day marches in Yemen.

Soureh Design has issued 450,000 tweets since September 2013. This works out at a rate of 160 tweets a day, or one every nine minutes round the clock.

One of the highest profile accounts that retweeted the Soureh Design post about Quds Day rallies in Yemen was an account called Socialist Voice, which names Jeremy Corbyn’s son Tommy as one of its 78,500 followers.

Our investigation also found that Apple and Android were offering IRGC-linked apps. These included an app representing the al-Masirah TV satellite channel, which is run by Yemen’s pro-Iran Houthi movement, and whose website was seized by the American authorities this week.

Apple and Google were also offering an app developed by a Revolutionary Guards front called the Iraqi Radio and Television Union, which enabled access to live media broadcasts.

The findings raise questions about the role of tech giants in aiding the spread of propaganda and whether they have breached financial sanctions on the Iranian regime.

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