By Arash Azizi
January 19, 2019
Iran’s state broadcaster has re-launched a controversial documentary series about enemies of the country, linking a number of prisoners in Iran, including the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, to unlikely conspiracies.
“Out of Sight,” produced by Mehdi Naghavian, first started broadcasting in December 2017 on Iran’s youth-oriented Channel Three. Earlier this week, it resumed broadcasting after a year, with the ninth episode of the series — which caused outrage because it included footage of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest in March 2016 at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport.
The UK has repeatedly failed in its attempts to secure the release of the Iranian-British citizen, who has since been convicted of espionage. Some Iranian officials openly connect her continued detention to an unrelated financial claim against the UK. In other words, they’ve openly admitted to holding her as collateral.
However, the episode doesn’t mention such claims. Instead, it links Zaghari-Ratcliffe to a long-running conspiracy theory about the UK government that claims the country is using Persian-language broadcasting and the training of journalists to bring about a “velvet revolution” against Tehran and change the “Islamic lifestyle” of Iranian women.
Conspiracy Theory as State Policy
In Iran conspiracy theories are directly converted into official state policy. The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is famously paranoid and his pretorian guard, the powerful Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC), spends massive resources on creating programming that purports to show the hidden hand of Baha’is, Zionists, freemasons, feminists and foreign governments behind anything bad going on in the country.
The first season of “Out of Sight” was launched in December 2017 on the anniversary of the 2009 pro-regime rallies that had helped crush the Green Movement, a democratic uprising which shook Iran earlier that summer. The first episode mostly covered the events of that year.
The broadcaster decided to pull the plug on the show after four episodes since they were thought to further enrage an angry people in the midst of massive street protests in December 2017 and January 2018. Sobhe No, a conservative newspaper, said Morteza Mirbagheri, head of the TV, had stopped the show since its broadcasting “wasn’t expedient, given the unrest of the last few days.”
A year passed before season two of “Out of Sight” aired in December 2018. It is still directed by Naghavian and now includes the subtitle Nofooz, which translates as “infiltration.” As Naghavian himself noted in an interview in the first week of January, ‘infiltration’ is the “most commonly-used keyword” in Khamenei’s speeches, especially since 2009. For Khamenei, not only does it cover the usual suspects like journalists and activists, but it also refers to wildlife conservationists and demographic specialists — both of which are currently held in Iranian jails for their alleged role in “infiltration” projects.
In the interview, Naghavian himself defines “infiltration” as “a higher stage of espionage, which is even more sophisticated” since “a spy might leave behind a trail but infiltration happens on a much softer level.”
“Someone working next to you … might be the same infiltrator using budgets from abroad to target the Irano-Islamic lifestyle and shaking the foundations of the government,” he said. According to Naghavian, infiltrators are to be found everywhere, “even in religious bodies.” One apparent example is Homa Hoodfar, a University of Concordia sociologist who spent about seven months in an Iranian jail in 2016. Hoodfar’s “anti-Islamic feminist objective” included calling for more female representation in the Iranian parliament, Naghavian said.
Who are the Infiltrators?
Among the “infiltrators” targeted by the new season of “Out of Sight” are Baqer and Siamak Namazi, a father and son who have been held in jail in Iran since 2015. The show highlighted a report published by the Wilson Center in 2013 as evidence of the Namazis’ betrayal. But as Bijan Khajepour, a consultant and a friend of the Namazis, noted in a Persian op-ed for IranWire, the show doesn’t say a word about the content of the 2013 report — which was heavily critical of the effect of US sanctions on Iranian people’s access to medicine.
“I do not know why it is that the high leadership of the regime lets a small number of people undermine the country’s interests,” Khajepour wrote in the op-ed, which criticized fabrications aired in a previous episode of “Out of Sight.”
An Iranian government official close to the Rouhani administration was even harsher about Iran’s leaders. He spoke to IranWire anonymously. “Our entire nuclear archives were stolen by Israelis in open daylight and these bunch of idiots in the IRGC Intelligence Department couldn’t do anything about it,” he said in a phone conversation. “But they go after people like the Namazis or the NIAC [the National Iranian American Council], who are actually pro-Iran.”
The ninth episode of the show mostly focuses on BBC Persian, a TV station launched in 2009 by “the center of world’s new colonialism, the BBC.” It tells the story of alleged journalism training sessions held for Iranian reporters in workshops organized in Turkey, India and Malaysia and funded by governments such as the UK, the US and the Netherlands, despite the fact that many of the projects were youth training schemes and not training for journalists at all. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a former assistant on one of the youth training programmes, is introduced as “one of the main security agents running the soft war” against Iran.
“Out of Sight” targets a number of people involved in training journalists for BBC or working on other Western-funded media freedom projects, including Arash Zad, an IT blogger who was arrested in 2015 and spent more than two years in jail.) In Zad’s televised confessions, which the authorities forced him to make, he speaks of how the project got funding from USAID, which was running the show in cooperation with George Soros, a favorite boogeyman of conspiracy theorists around the world. The documentary claims that Zad’s internationally-internationally-recognized start-up Kafshdoozak aimed to use “secular education to change the Islamic life style of Iranian women.”
Who Funds the Conspiracy Theorists?
Younger diehard supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei are usually involved in programs like “Out of Sight.” These individuals, who are unhappy about the relaxation of social norms that Iran has seen in the last two decades, often present themselves as representing the grassroots supporters of the original ideals of Iran’s Islamic revolution, but they receive massive funding from the IRGC, a mammoth-like institution that controls much of the country’s economy. Its resources easily rival that of the administration of President Hassan Rouhani.
Over the last few days, Naghavian has been a guest of honor at the 9th Ammar Film Festival. The festival and the organization that runs it, the “Ammar Cultural and Cyberspace Organization” (ACCO), is funded by the IRGC. Naghavian and his ilk are often called “the People of Ammar” because of their connections to the ACCO.
It is with such generous funding that Naghavian made “Out of Sight.”
Ammar Festival tries to propagate a heroic imagery around Iran’s sacrifices during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, even though most of the festival organizers are too young to have done much in the war. Its special award is a pair of “Momma Esmat Gloves” sewn by an elderly lady from the central city of Yazd who used to make them for Iranian soldiers throughout the war. Naghavian was a proud recipient of the gloves at the 2017 Ammar Festival. When he came down from the stage after his acceptance speech he was sure to shout “Death to the USA!” to the audience.
Naghavian and others are happy to use religious aspirations to justify dirty tactics to combat what they regard as information wars against the regime. “Out of Sight” ironically highlights a recent BBC Persian documentary made by Hossein Bastani, a well-known journalist. The film describes how some Shia clerics have allowed to people to break Islam’s prohibition on lying if the lies can be used against certain enemies. This was the theory Iranian state TV used when it broadcast the “news” that Masih Alinejad, a well-known journalist and activist hated by the government for her campaign against compulsory veiling, had been gang-raped on the London Underground in front of her teenage son. The story had no basis in reality and those who broadcast it knew this — but it was thought to be permissible in order to counter the “soft war” of the West.
The Iranian regime is open about its enmity to freedom of the press and its fear of open media. And the “People of Ammar” will happily use all lies and fabrications if it is thought to further their anti-freedom crusade.