By Pejman Tavahori
September 17, 2021
A message makes sense in its context: we analyze and understand it based on the message itself and the background information we have to hand. But when no context is available – or provided – then we can misunderstand a message or it can even become meaningless. We see this often now because of social media. Many social media users publish posts that only makes sense for specific audiences who understand the context and were already informed of the subject. We can call this phenomenon the collapse of context: the experience of encountering a message that has no meaning or a meaning that we cannot grasp because the message was intended for a specific audience and not the general public.
Collapsing context can lead to misinformation or disinformation: it misleads the audience and conveys an unrealistic idea to the general public. And sometimes the media – including in Iran – deliberately collapses context to convey a message to its audience without covering all aspects of an issue. The aim in this case is to push the audience to reach specific and predetermined conclusion about a given story.
A good example is a May 2021 cartoon and report published by Mehr News Agency entitled An excuse for not importing vaccines. The full text published with this cartoon said:
“Today, the country’s vaccine depots are filled with several international brands, where some officials of [Hassan Rouhani’s government] have previously linked the lack of supply of vaccines to the FATF issue and the sanctions.” The cartoon was drawn by Abbas Goudarzi.
Everyone knows that until a month ago, Iran faced a severe shortage of vaccines, so that no more than 500,000 doses were administered per day, and the vaccination process was slow. Everyone knows that until a month ago, the government was run by former President Hassan Rouhani, and in early August, it was handed over to Ebrahim Raisi. Everyone knows that the vaccination process has accelerated in the last two or three weeks. All this information is in the background of our minds when we see the above cartoon. Mehr News Agency has invested in this context for us to inject fake news in our minds.
The government of Hassan Rouhani undoubtedly could not or did not want to stop the misguided policies of the Islamic Republic in the issue of vaccines – namely, the decision to not import US-made or UK-made vaccines – and thousands of Iranians paid for these policies with their lives.
Mehr is affiliated with the Islamic Propaganda Organization, the propaganda organ of the Islamic Republic, and supervised by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Let’s assume that Mehr’s audience concluded from the cartoon that Rouhani’s government intentionally or unintentionally failed to import vaccines and that the government of Raisi has resolutely solved the problem with determination and sheer political will. The cartoon nevertheless does not provide important information to the audience, namely, that it only shows a corner of the truth. The cartoon tries to mislead its audience and to hide the real reason for the vaccine delays; instead, Mehr tried to blame Rouhani, whereas the reality is different.
The truth is that barriers to importing Covid-19 vaccines were removed when the Supreme Leader changed his position, on August 11, 2021, and announced: “The coronavirus vaccine, whether imported or domestically produced, must be provided secured through every possible means and made available to everyone.” The next day, Kianoush Jahanpour, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, announced that 40 million doses of the vaccine would be delivered by the end of the summer. According to Jahanpour, 21 million doses of vaccine had been imported Iran up until that time.
But Khamenei was the first person to slow Iran’s vaccination drive by announcing the ban on US and UK vaccines. When the Supreme Leader issued this order, the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines were the only vaccines distributed by the UN’s COVAX program, which distributes vaccine doses around the world, and many countries received these vaccines in the early stages of the vaccine roll-out. But Iran was placed on a waiting list for Russian or Chinese vaccines. Restricting Iran’s vaccine supply to Russian and Chinese products, and later Indian vaccines, intensified the national shortage and ground imports to a near-halt. And until the Supreme Leader changed his position, the official policy of the Islamic Republic regarding vaccines, which was declared by the then Minister of Health, who obediently served the Supreme Leader, was “turning Iran into a vaccine production center in the region, by not importing vaccines.” Competition arose between Iranian organizations to produce vaccines domestically to benefit from the huge financial investment.
Blaming international sanctions on Iran for the lack of vaccine imports was not just a tactic of Hassan Rouhani’s government: it was also used by commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp and other government officials. So long as Iran’s policy was to focus on domestic design and production – instead of imports – sanctions were always used to justify Iran’s policies and the ban on US and UK imports.
The Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, said in a detailed report entitled “How the US and Westerners kneel on the throat of the Iranian People: America prevents vaccination through sanctions”:
“Despite what they say, that the United States does not ban food and medicine [from entering Iran], it did not allow our country to import hens for about nine months. If US sanctions had continued, and we had not revived an Iranian chicken, domestic chicken production would have dropped to zero.” The report continued: “From the beginning of international efforts to provide a vaccine against the coronavirus, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran provided the vaccine and, as usual, paid for it (even reportedly more than other countries), but again it was faced with a lack of commitment from international bodies.”
Hassan Salami, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, believed as late as August 22, 2021, that: “While we are exposed to this mysterious and complex global disease and suffer from its physiological and social consequences, we are also exposed to the most severe and intense global embargo. … we cannot use our money, which is blocked in the banks of other countries by the United States, to provide medicine, vaccines and pharmaceutical items.”
Future scholars of Iran’s state media and of the coronavirus pandemic in Iran may find it difficult to understand that such reports as the above were part of the Iranian government’s deliberate attempt to acquit Ali Khamenei for his decision to ban US and UK vaccine imports – a decision that brought misery on the Iranian people and afflicted countless families. But for today’s audience, familiar with the context, it is not difficult to understand the deceit of this message. Even casual consumers of contemporary Iranian media can recognize such disinformation. And all media consumers should ask themselves: Who is behind this message? Which media outlet published it? What is its purpose? And, most importantly, what information does the media hide from its audience and deliberately cover up?