PBS and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Propaganda

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 UN 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 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, 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.

Sayah: “You say everything is fine for the Jewish community is fine.”
Morsadegh: “No, no. No one can say that everything is fine.”

Sayah: “Well, you say most things are fine.”
Morsadegh: “Are improving.”

Sayah: “Improving. Many people outside of Iran are going to remark that you’re not being completely truthful, you’re not being completely open. How can you convince people?”
Morsadegh: “I cannot convince a man who don’t [sic] want to understand our condition, of course.”

Yet despite the noticeable effort to pre-empt  skepticism and criticism by mentioning — without elaborating on —  some of the nastier aspects of Iran’s history, the segment nevertheless followed much of the  pattern of the earlier CNN piece:

a) It showed film clips of Jewish prayers in Tehran’s Abrishami synagogue, people eating in a kosher restaurant, students at a Jewish school and patients and nurses at a Jewish-founded hospital;

b) It emphasized the long history of the Jewish community in Iran; and

c) It asked the same scripted questions that can have only one response under an authoritarian, repressive regime.

PBS, Nov. 27, 2018:

Sayah: “Life for you as a Jew is good in Iran?”
Morsadegh: “Yes.

Sayah: You’re happy here?”
Morsadegh: “If I wasn’t happy, I can immigrate.”

Sayah: “But you don’t want to leave?”
Morsadegh: “Everyone who wants to leave can leave.”

Sayah: “But you don’t want to leave?”
Morsadegh: “I don’t want. I am living here. And I want to live here.”

CNN, Sept. 30, 2013:

Sayah: “Are you happy in Iran?”
Morsadegh: “Of course we are happy in Iran.”

Sayah: “Are you under any pressure to stay in Iran?”
Morasedgh: “There is no specific pressure for the Iranian Jew.”

Sayah: “Would you prefer to live anywhere else other than Iran?”
Morasedgh: “I only prefer to live in Iran.”

Similarly, while the recent PBS segment included additional details about anti-Israel rhetoric by Iranian “hardliners” and Iran’s boycotting Israeli athletes – CNN, by contrast, had alluded only to “bitter rivalry” between the two countries – the bottom line was the same: Both segments blamed the country’s anti-Jewish state stance on Israeli leaders and policies.

CNN, Sept. 30, 2013:

Sayah: “Everyone here, the Muslims and the Jews, live and work together, says Zarif Setareh-Shenas. This, despite the Iranian government’s bitter rivalry with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Sayah: “Morsadegh says that what Iran opposes is the Israeli government’s Zionist policies and occupation of Palestinian land.”

Morsadegh: “There is a great difference between being a Jew and being pro-Israel or Zionist. I think that the behavior of the Israeli regime is not in the direction of Torah and Talmud teachings.”

PBS, Nov. 27, 2018:

Sayah: “Iran doesn’t recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Hard-liners still scream ‘Death to Israel’ at every Friday prayers. And in international sporting events, Iran bans its athletes from competing with Israelis, who often end up winning by forfeit.

But Jews here say Iranian policy is strictly against the Israeli government and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, not Jews or Israeli people. It’s a policy many Jews here publicly support.”

Morsadegh: “My decision about Israel is based on the Iranian national interest. Everyone who is enemy of my country is enemy of me.”

Sayah: “And you suggest that Israel is an enemy of Iran?”

Morsadegh: “If Israel behaves in such manner that it’s behaving until today, of course is enemy of peace in our part of the world.”

Notwithstanding its somewhat subtler message, the PBS segment raises obvious and serious concerns:

  • How credible can any interview be with subjects of a repressive, theocratic government internationally condemned for its human rights abuses of religious minorities?   And how can a journalist  in a country with no freedom of the press investigate and probe beneath the surface? [Would PBS credulously air an interview with North Korean subjects expounding about their freedoms?]

Swedish journalist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s description in The Tower of her own visit to interview Iran’s Jewish community sheds necessary light on the process, information missing from the PBS segment:

As I am traveling to Iran as a journalist, I am appointed a driver and a translator, both employed by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It’s a mandatory service, and these young men are to stay by my side throughout the 20 days of my stay. I am picked up at my hotel each morning and dropped off at my door at night, and at the end of each day there is a debriefing at the ministry where we are taken aside and spoken to separately in order to make sure our stories match.

I’m there to meet with the Jewish community, and this involves a costly and time-consuming process to get ahold of the necessary permits to do so…  I’m taken to the Jewish community center in Tehran, located on the third floor of a modern stone building on an unassuming corner street in north Tehran…

…As [the head of the Jewish community] tells me, life in Persia is unlike any other in the Jewish world…The words flow from his mouth with such fluency that I can’t help but feel they are not only far too deliberate, but oddly well-rehearsed. He speaks of loyalties and I can see why he does so, as I have brought an agent of the regime into his somewhat protected space. Jewish life here comes with carefully constructed rules and understandings, and one of the basic tenets involves separation from and defamation of Zionism and Israel. Outbursts of loyalty to the regime are expected, whether in the form of volunteering for a war or sharing an enemy, and that aspect of Iranian Jewish reality is something I as a European Jew can relate to and fully understand. It is clear that the Jewish community lives with a constant level of suspicion toward outsiders and insiders alike, always fearing treachery and infiltration; and much like in the Soviet Union, people are trying to weed out informants, unsure how to tell friend from foe. In short, there are no real answers, only truths in the untold, and I realize that for this man there may be a hefty price attached to every word and every answered question…

  • Why didn’t PBSNewsHour producers exercise due diligence and thoroughly research the topic instead of credulously accepting at face value a glowing report from inside a repressive regime seeking international favor to eliminate sanctions? 

They might have found that:

While the Jewish community is among three recognized religious minorities in Iran (the others are Zoroastrians and Christians who have not converted from Islam), free to practice their religion “within the limits of [Iranian] law,”  Iranian Jews are not quite as “respected” or “safe” as the segment suggests. Nor is there an “absence of anti-Semitism” as is declared.

According to the US State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report on Iran

“Police arrested several Jews on unknown charges; the arrests were widely believed to be related to their religious affiliation. The arrests followed reports of attacks on two synagogues in Shiraz over consecutive nights. In the first instance, attackers broke into the Kenisa’eh Hadash (New Synagogue) and the Hadash Synagogue and desecrated two Torah scrolls and more than 100 prayer books, destroyed furnishings, tefillin, and prayer shawls, and stole silver.”

Had PBS producers consulted scholars on Iran, they may have learned that contrary to the segment’s implication that hate rhetoric is confined to anti-Israel utterances by “hard-liners” during Friday prayers, it, in fact,  emanates from the top echelons of the regime and includes Holocaust denial and the use of anti-Semitic tropesAccording to Iran expert Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations and Middle East scholar Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

“Anti-Semitism is not only central to the regime’s identity; it’s also inextricably tied to its soft-power propaganda aimed at the larger Muslim world, especially Arabs…Whether it’s those aligned behind Ali Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor), the revolutionary pragmatists backing Rouhani or the Islamic leftists who once rallied behind the reforming president Mohammad Khatami, attitudes toward Israel and the Holocaust have remained constant…. Anti-Semitism in Iran is an Orwellian voyage of ideology, where fiery sermons and conferences calling for the annihilation of Israel and denying the Holocaust have become the sanctioned language of the Islamic republic.”

Unlike Reza Sayah’s PBS piece, journalist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein searches beyond the pat, rehearsed answers given by Jewish community members in front of the journalist’s government-appointed minder. She participates in a synagogue service, finding momentary escape “from the eyes and ears of the regime,” and discerns the sentiments that cannot be voiced publicly. As the journalist recounts:

“I feel a hand on my arm, grasping desperately for my attention.

‘Pray for us, will you, please?’

[The worshipper’s] words are sad and real and stark, and they break the wall put up by her masters. I nod but fail to answer; I see a glimpse of her life but fail to fully understand; and I know there is nothing I can do but say a prayer and tell her story…

…I’m walking alongside the women, and the natural physical distance between the sexes offers a rare opportunity to speak without constraints. I ask them in broken Hebrew if they are really allowed to visit Israel or even make aliyah [move to Israel] as I had been told.

‘We are allowed by law now,’ [the woman] says, ‘but when you leave the country you have to put up collateral, often everything you own, and usually there is only one visa per family offered at one time. So we can visit, if we do it discretely, but rarely someone leaves. The price would be too high for the rest of us.’

Another woman in the group tells me that Iran has the world’s highest number of agunot—Jewish women separated from their husbands but not allowed to divorce. I am shocked at this notion, as it speaks to a deep desperation—a husband leaving his wife and family behind to flee life in Iran.”

Ironically, Reza Sayah noted in the PBS segment that in fact, Morsadegh’s wife left Iran to live in the U.S., but far from examining the reasons she and other Jews might have for fleeing the Islamic regime, the segment presents the facile excuse of Morsadegh’s wife being too immodest for Iran:

Sayah: Twenty years ago, Morsadegh’s wife wanted the couple to move to America. She left. He stayed, choosing Iran’s more conservative culture. So you gave up your wife to stay in Iran?

Morsadegh: Yes. Yes, it’s very important for me. I think that I cannot live without Iranian culture. I can’t tolerate my wife to dress in bikini in seaside, because I grew up in Iranian culture.

While the PBS segment conveys only Iran’s message that Jews enjoy religious freedom and that they too oppose the Jewish state and distance themselves from it, journalist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein,  a Jew from a European country where anti-Semitism is rampant, is far more perceptive. She takes note of what the Jews are saying and astutely observes:

…[Soon] the forbidden subject enters the conversation:

‘Have you seen Jerusalem?’

‘Have you visited Hebron?’

‘Do you have pictures of the Western Wall you could send us after Shabbat?’

It is fascinating to see this 2,700-year-old Jewish community that has only related to Israel through text still feel the longing for the land in such a real and powerful way, and while I answer their questions in vivid detail, I am moved beyond words by the innocence and curiosity of their query. Despite the regime’s policy of Holocaust denial and unabashed anti-Zionism, it has failed to sever the bond between a people and its homeland, even with so much at stake…

… [The Iranian Jews’ religious] freedom exists inside a large and impenetrable prison, their homogenous traditional orthodoxy that I long for back home is only possible in a place where the alternatives are deemed illegal.

But most of all, I am struck by their longing for Israel.

My connection to Israel is a backbone, an integral part of my identity as a Jew. Being in Iran showed me what it would be like to live without it. How completely untethered and unsafe I would feel. On my continent, people are fleeing their homes because they are Jewish, their Jewish identity making it unsafe for them to stay. What if there was no Israel to come home to? What if we were left alone, like shards of crystal, dispersed in the Diaspora? How would we act? What would we be? What would we have to do in order to please our master?

  • Who pitched the segment to PBS and what message was it supposed to convey?

While PBS does not divulge who proposed the segment, the U.S. government-funded public broadcasting station does explain its purpose in an online introductory paragraph that accompanies the clip and transcript:

“Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they’re safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran’s Jewish minority.” [emphasis added]

Is it merely coincidental that PBS’ introduction echoes the Iranian regime’s own contention that criticism of it and its anti-Semitic threats to annihilate the Jewish State are based on lies by Israel and the Trump administration, and therefore invalidate any calls for sanctions?

It would not be the first time that a journalist used his craft in order to become a mouthpiece for the propaganda of an evil dictatorship. As New York Times’ Moscow correspondent between 1922-1936,  Walter Duranty wrote a series of articles, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, extolling USSR Dictator Josef Stalin’s policies. He later denied the widespread famine in the USSR that killed millions of people, although he clearly knew the truth.

PBS, however, is funded by the U.S. government and by individual grants. It should be careful to avoid any role that promotes or abets a foreign dictatorship’s propaganda campaign.

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