The Intercept’s exposé on Heshmat Alavi, whose articles were published on websites including Forbes, The Hill and Al Arabiya English, caused his account to be briefly shut down on Twitter. But how much information war is there at play?
The Iranian opposition is notoriously fractured. There is no love lost between the three main groups – monarchists who support the Pahlavi dynasty, opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and unaffiliated others. Opposition activists frequently compete for legitimacy and publicity through columns, tweets, and media appearances – a maelstrom of information and disinformation.
This contest took an unexpected turn after the political news site The Intercept recently published an article claiming that Heshmat Alavi, an Iranian opposition contributor to various international publications including Al Arabiya English, was not a “real person” or an actual commentator. The article accused Alavi of being a fake persona run by a group of individuals from MEK, an organization accused of being cult-like. MEK was designated by the US State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization between 1997 until 2012.
Following publication of The Intercept’s article, Twitter suspended Alavi’s account. However, the account was reinstated shortly afterwards. When contacted for a statement, the social media platform said it does not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.
A source knowledgeable with the vetting process who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “The user was initially suspended for violating the Twitter Rules. The user appealed the suspension and, after completing the appeals process, Twitter found the account is a credible use of pseudonymity, not a fake account intended to manipulate and deceive.”
Alavi had written for a number of publications including Forbes, The Hill and The Daily Caller. Al Arabiya English discontinued his columns in January this year. Al Arabiya English’s Communications Manager Abdulla Almannai stated that, “That decision came as a result of several editors’ growing concerns over Alavi’s political affiliations.”
Before Alavi’s columns were discontinued, Al Arabiya English staff members had been in regular communication with Alavi via email. During these email exchanges Al Arabiya English obtained a copy of Alavi’s passport as standard procedure for processing contributor payments. The passport submitted did not match with the name Heshmat Alavi. The ostensible real identity of Heshmat Alavi ceased their public Twitter commentary and writing prior to the creation of the alias, now publicly known to be a pseudonym.
Years before the Heshmat Alavi pseudonym became active on Twitter in 2014, the individual in the passport seen by Al Arabiya English had advocated similar political views online. Pseudonyms are commonly used by high-level members of the MEK. “MEK members commonly stop using their real names once they have reached a certain level in the organization to ensure that [MEK leader] Maryam Rajavi receives the majority of media exposure,” said Masoud Alzahid, an expert on Iran.
When contacted at the time, Alavi asked that Al Arabiya English protect his real identity and refrain from publishing his real photograph on articles. “I just wanted to clarify that I truly cannot provide my image,” Alavi told Al Arabiya English by email. “It is out of my hands. I have family inside Iran and if I do provide such a photo of myself this will endanger their security.”
Al Arabiya English reached out to Alavi by phone and email but has received no response.
Iranian dissidents similar to Alavi have been frequently targeted for assassination around the world. In 2015 and 2017, two Iranians were shot dead in The Hague by Dutch gang members – Ahmad Mola Nissi, the leader of an Arab separatist movement in Iran’s Ahwaz region, and Ali Motamed, the accused perpetrator of a bomb attack on the Islamic Republic party’s headquarters. These attacks are part of a wide-spread assassination campaign which led to the EU imposing sanctions on Iran in early 2019.
Iranian dissidents are at risk: two Iranian diplomats, including an ambassador, were expelled from Albania in 2018. The diplomats were accused of planning an attack inside Albania, the country where MEK was relocated to by the US and the UNHCR in 2013 following attacks on their base in Iraq.
“The decision to withhold Alavi’s full identity was taken to protect him from any potential repercussions that he or his family may have suffered following publication of his content,” he added.