Is CNN Conducting a PR Campaign For The Iranian Regime?

Is CNN actively engaged in PR on behalf of Iran? Is the global media outlet involved in a campaign to launder the Iranian regime’s history of anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions?

First, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour mistranslated the comments of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to imply that he, unlike his Holocaust-denying predecessor, publicly acknowledged and condemned the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

And more recently, a CNN report by Reza Sayah presented a utopian portrait of a tolerant and benevolent Islamic Iranian regime whose Jewish citizens enjoy the same religious freedoms as those living in the Jewish state of Israel. “Sure, it may seem like we’re in Israel,” Sayah says, “but in fact we’re in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The report, which seemed more like a promotional advertisement for Jewish life in Iran than a news investigation, omitted all controversial and unpleasant historical facts regarding the treatment of Iran’s Jews since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. For example, there is no mention of the 1999 arrest of 13 Iranian Jews in Shiraz on charges of spying for the “Zionist regime.” There is no hint of the fact that more than 17 Jews were executed since the Revolution, mostly on charges of spying for Israel and the U.S., 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.  There is no mention of the previous Iranian president’s Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic rhetoric. There is no attempt to look beyond the rosy picture of Islamic tolerance that is presented and no effort made to provide viewers with a fuller picture of the Islamic regime’s attitude toward Jews over the past 35 years.

Sayah not only ignores the hostile rhetoric and actions of the Iranian regime over the years, but downplays even its enmity toward the Jewish state, referring merely to “bitter rivalry” between the two states. The reporter interviews Siamak Morasedgh, Iran’s only Jewish parliamentarian, who, as it happens, was part of President Rouhani’s delegation to New York and who has been on the media circuit condemning Israel and Zionism and trying to persuade the West that the Islamic Republic is exceptionally tolerant toward Jews.  The CNN reporter helps him along throughout the video, posing simplistic questions but making no attempt to probe beneath the surface. Under authoritarian regimes like Iran, there can only be one correct response to the type of questions asked by the reporter, and the Jewish parliamentarian responds dutifully:

Sayah: “Are you happy in Iran?”
Morasedgh: Of course we are happy in Iran.
Sayah “Are you under any pressure to stay in Iran?”
Morasedgh: “There is no pressure…”
Sayah “Would you prefer to live anywhere else other than Iran?”
Morasedgh: “I only prefer to live in Iran.”

Later, Morasedgh is called upon again to reject allegations of Iranian anti-Semitism and to condemn Israel and Zionism. He goes so far as to assert that “in the history of Iran, you cannot find even one time that there was any organized anti-Semitic phenomenon.” In a voiceover, the reporter declares:

Morasedgh says that what Iran opposes is the Israeli government’s Zionist policies and occupation of Palestinian land.

One might well wonder whether Jewish leaders under an authoritarian regime, especially one that serves in Iran’s parliament, might feel compelled to praise Iran’s leaders and publicly condemn Israel and Zionism.

Indeed, other journalists have displayed skepticism about the statements of Iran’s Jewish leaders. For example, Iranian-American journalist Karmel Melamed, who reported earlier this year on an increasing trend in the murders of Jews in Iran  has frequently written about how Iran’s Jewish community leaders are used as part of the regime’s propaganda campaign. (See here and here.) 

Middle East Quarterly‘s Michael Rubin shows similar skepticism about the idyllic claims of the philo-Semitism of Iranian leaders, asking what became of 11 Jews who were detained by Iranian authorities between 1994 and 1997 while trying to cross the border and have not been heard of since.

The CNN journalist acknowledges that Iran’s Jewish population has “declined over the years, mostly because of migration”, although he does not indicate the extent of population decline — from 100-150 thousand before Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to just under 9,000 according to Iran’s 2011 census. Curiously, Sayah never questions why so many Iranian Jews left the country, saying only, “Those who remain say they face no discrimination from the majority here.”
Should it not occur to a standard-bearer of international journalism like CNN to look beyond the smooth and uniform facade presented by the Iranian regime and its subjects? Perhaps, in addition to interviewing members of the dwindling Jewish community that remains in the country, they might have chosen to interview some of the many more who have “migrated” and are free to openly speak their minds. Had they done so, they might have stumbled on stories like that of Kooshyar Karimi, an Iranian-Jewish doctor who sought asylum in Australia, who recently wrote a book about the difficulties of growing up Jewish, and his persecution in the hands of Iranian authorities who forced him to spy on other Jews, including members of his family. But it seems that CNN did not wish to mar their halcyon story with anything approaching nuance, and so we are left with the piece that aired — a CNN feature that could have been commissioned by the Iranian Office of Public Relations.

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