By Hamid Yazdan Panah
Recent reports have shed light on the tactics used by the Obama administration to sell the Iran deal to the American public. Ploughshares, a group identified by the White House as a key partner in selling the Iran deal to the public has recently been found to have provided funding to specific reporters and media outlets. The revelation calls into question the ethics of the administration, and raises serious questions as to the integrity of certain non-governmental organizations and media outlets. Putting aside the nuclear deal with Iran, the Ploughshares controversy uncovers a deeper issue with respect to the treatment of the Iranian opposition by those involved in the “echo chamber.”
According to the Ploughshares Fund, its mission is to "build a safe, secure world by developing and investing in initiatives to reduce and ultimately eliminate the world's nuclear stockpiles." Yet Ploughshares involvement with the Obama administration raises questions as to its political nature. More importantly, there is evidence that Ploughshares funded a campaign to demonize an Iranian opposition group.
In 2011 Plougshares awarded a $8,500 grant to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). The grant was given, “To shape public discourse about the pending removal (delisting) of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) organization from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in order to prevent war with Iran.”
NIAC used the grant money to vehemently oppose the removal of the MEK from the United States terrorist list. Their arguments consistently centered on claims that the de-listing would hurt diplomacy with Iran, despite the fact that the case was actually a judicial decision and not a foreign policy move. The fact of the matter was that the MEK was required to be de-listed according to the laws of the United States, not a cost benefit analysis of foreign policy. Ironically, the MEK was the group that exposed Iran’s illegal and clandestine nuclear program to the international community, something which at least on the surface appears to be in line with Ploughshares supposed mission.
Ploughshares has also consistently provided NIAC, a group with strong ties to the Iranian regime, hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding since 2006. It provided more than $275,000 in funding to NIAC in 2015 alone. NIAC has in turn used the funding to continue to promote a policy of engagement with Iran that not only ignores human rights, but enriches its own internal supporters while demonizing the Iranian opposition.
In point of fact, at least a very basic glance at those who received money from Ploughshares reveals an interesting trend, one which has little to do with stopping proliferation or the Iranian nuclear deal. From 2010 onwards, numerous articles were written by various outlets which undermined, disparaged, or blatantly attacked the MEK. Here is a small sample of articles for reference.
Each of these outlets received funding from Ploughshares. Included are references to anti-Mek articles over the last few years. Some of the larger names include the Guardian, as well as NPR which to its credit attempted to present a somewhat balanced view of their opposition to de-listing the MEK. The Huffington Post however did not, going so far as to provide blogs to NIAC staff members as well as individuals associated with the Iranian intelligence ministry, all of which were focused on the MEK.
One of the more anti-MEK reporters at Huffington Post was none other than Christina Wilkie, who even went out of her way to offer her own personal views on the subject of de-listing, again a curious stance for a reporter. Interestingly enough, Wilkie’s name appears on NIAC’s website though her connection with the organization is not clear.
Salon, which received money from Plougshares, wrote extensively on the MEK, and for a brief period of time it appeared Glenn Greenwald had a personal vendetta against the group. I counted at least five articles by Greenwald on Salon.
Justin Elliott also wrote extensively on the group for Salon as well as other outlets, with particular a zeal not normally found in an investigative reporter. Interestingly enough, Elliot not only has ties to outlets which received money from Ploughshares, but he has ties to NIAC as well as other anti-Mek groups.
Elliot Retweeted Parsi on March 16th 2012, stating “RT @tparsi: Bureau reveals real client is MEK terror org. Then retracts, says client's human right org. But they have same address!” Elliot has written no less thanone,two,three,four,five different articles about various officials and personalities lobbying for the MEK. He even also sent out at least20 tweets on the MEK from his own account
Mother Jones also received money from Ploughshares, and interestingly enough wrote several articles on the MEK, often quoting Greenwald and other friendly sources. Also worth mentioning is The Nation’s Ali Gharib who has continuously written against the MEK.
To get an idea of how all of these pieces fit together one need look no further than events like this put together by NIAC, focused on the de-listing of the MEK. The panelists include Barbara Slavin, who is connected to the Atlantic Council which received $75,000 from Ploughshares, and written repeatedly against the MEK. As well as the Center for American Progress (another Ploughshares funding recipient) who has written against the MEK.
The anti-MEK effort was not only limited to journalists, but to other non-governmental organizations as well. Seemingly objective organizations such as, The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the Truman National Security Project, and The Stimson Center, all took shots at the MEK while discussing Iran. The Center for American Progress even went so far as having their Senior Editor pen an Op-ed expressly against de-listing. Why? Who was behind this coordinated effort to demonize Iran’s opposition and maintain them on the terrorist list, despite clear judicial guidance requiring de-listing.
Whether it was a concerted effort by the Obama administration to undermine the rule of law, or collusion between non-state actors and media outlets, it paints a disturbing portrait of how money, media and power can come together to target an opposition group fighting for change.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area.