As an Iranian American journalist covering the Iran-U.S. relationship, Negar Mortazavi is accustomed to receiving vitriol on social media. Still, she found it unusual when she saw on Twitter that someone had called her a “treasonous criminal” and “a spy and an enemy of the people.” The tweets got darker: “If the U.S. had laws of the Middle Ages like Iran, this mouthpiece of the corrupt regime would have been executed,” one read, in Farsi.
What made the tweets unusual was that the person targeting her was Ali Javanmardi. Javanmardi is a prominent television journalist at the Voice of America Persian, the U.S.-owned network broadcasting to Iranians — which means that he works for the U.S. government. Mortazavi is a former VOA Persian reporter herself and was a colleague of Javanmardi’s, and she was shocked enough by his tweets to complain to VOA editors. An editor told her that he had reminded Javanmardi that personal attacks online were unacceptable to the agency, Mortazavi said in an email to The Intercept. But Javanmardi did not remove his attacks, and they are still available.
The online tirade directed at Mortazavi is part of a pattern: Journalists at VOA Persian have been lashing out at Americans they deem unsupportive of President Donald Trump’s Iran policy, in apparent violation of VOA’s declared standards.
Journalists at VOA Persian have been lashing out at Americans they deem unsupportive of Trump’s Iran policy.
The public attacks are the most visible manifestation of a transformation that’s been underway since November 2016. VOA Persian and many of its staffers have become rabidly pro-Trump, abandoning their stated mission of providing balanced news to Iranians. So perhaps it’s not surprising that its reporters are now acting on social media like Trump himself.
For years, hawks complained that VOA Persian wasn’t sufficiently hostile enough to the Iranian government. In 2012, a Heritage Foundation report accused VOA Persian of being “pro-Iranian” and “anti-American” for having done such things as “reported only the negative aspects of bombing in Iraq and implied that the war was a mistake.” Writers for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary lodged similar complaints.
The irony is that that station, which premiered as a radio station in the 1940s, was widely known for hostility to the Iranian government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “It was always anti-regime,” said Ali Sajjadi, who was the senior managing editor there before retiring last year. Former executive editor Mohammad Manzarpour told me that he was shocked when he arrived at VOA Persian in 2013, after many years at the BBC, to discover that his new company was filled with monarchists and supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian opposition group in exile that advocates relentlessly for the Iranian regime’s overthrow.
For all its flaws, however, VOA Persian also upheld some journalistic standards and ran stories critical of the United States. It showcased positive aspects of the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran. Those qualities were, of course, why hawks despised the station: It didn’t act simply as a propaganda network for the right-wing view of Iran. Guests sometimes spoke of Iran as if it could play a constructive role in the region and didn’t always treat the Iranian government as something that needed to be overthrown.
And then Trump was elected.
Since then, the network has become, as Sajjadi puts it, “a mouthpiece of Trump — only Trump and nothing but Trump.” Manzarpour describes the situation as “blatant propaganda.” He said, “There is no objectivity or factuality.”
For example, the MEK is covered heavily and favorably, despite having almost no support inside Iran, a history of terroristic violence, and a well-founded reputation as a cult. A VOA employee, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of reprisal, said, “VOA Persian, for the first time in decades, has been acting as media arm of MEK and is giving wall-to-wall live coverage of their gatherings and events.” And VOA Persian published multiple articles by Heshmat Alavi, a pro-MEK persona exposed by The Intercept this June as having been the product of a multiperson propaganda outfit housed in an MEK compound in Albania. (VOA Persian later said it would remove the articles.)
The VOA has broadcast puff pieces on Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah, whom Iran hawks see as a viable opposition leader. Hard-line Iran hawks are frequent guests on the network, often on the receiving end of friendly interviews. These guests include current Trump administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an inveterate Iran hawk. Pundits like Michael Ledeen have appeared, as have personnel from three heavily neoconservative Washington-based think tanks: the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hudson Institute.
“It’s pro-Trump in a way that disregards the way Trump’s polices are hurting Iranians, whether through sanctions or anything else.”
A spokesperson for VOA declined to discuss “individual personnel matters” but told The Intercept that “all VOA journalists, be it federal government employees or contractors, are expected to adhere to VOA’s social media policy as delineated clearly in its Best Practices Guide. When potential policy violations are brought to the attention of VOA management, employees are reminded of the policy and expected to ensure that their social media accounts comply.” She added, “VOA pursues its mission by producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, as well as online and social media content for a global audience, particularly for those who are denied access to open and free media.”
Azadeh Moaveni, an Iran expert at the Crisis Group, says that VOA’s decline worsens the possibilities for engagement between the U.S. and Iran. “It’s pro-Trump in a way that disregards the way Trump’s polices are hurting Iranians, whether through sanctions or anything else,” she told The Intercept. “To the extent that it might have served as a medium through which Iranians learned about the U.S. and better understood its policies, its present condition as a naked propaganda mouthpiece doesn’t help relations.”
Several people interviewed for this article described VOA Persian’s shift toward becoming a Trump administration PR service as one that was mostly motivated by internal factors. Careerists, anti-regime journalists, and staff members sought to curry favor with the Trump administration. Some saw an opportunity to promote their like-minded views. For others, “the only reason” to push Trump’s policies “is because they want to save their jobs,” said Vafa Azarbahari, a former writer at VOA Persian.
At the same time, soon after Trump was elected, his allies began campaigning to change VOA Persian. Right-wing pundit Kenneth Timmerman penned an op-ed saying the station had “long been a disaster;” he soon wrote another column calling it “The Voice of Tehran.” Other op-eds followed suit, in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Examiner.
In December 2016, Republicans in Congress disbanded the board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency that oversees VOA, and concentrated its power in the hands of a politically appointed CEO. It was clear that things would change: In January 2017, VOA’s Twitter account shared then-White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s infamous claims that Trump’s inauguration crowds were the largest ever. Days later, two aides from Trump’s campaign visited the VOA studios, sending a conspicuous message about who was in charge.
Republicans disbanded the board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency that oversaw VOA, and concentrated its power in the hands of a politically appointed CEO.
In 2017, the new BBG chair, Kenneth Weinstein — who is also CEO of the Hudson Institute — asked a different conservative think tank, the hawkish American Foreign Policy Council, to review the BBG’s Iran programs. Unsurprisingly, the resulting report determined that VOA had not been critical enough of the regime or the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama and Iran — even while acknowledging that the station frequently devoted attention to the plight of minorities inside Iran. “Significant coverage of the state of U.S.-Iranian relations reflected the mistaken notion that the Iranian regime is now friendlier to the United States,” the report read.
The analysis lamented that sometimes the United States and Iran were treated as equals, stating “reportage on bilateral relations between the U.S. government and the Iranian regime conveyed an impression of equivalence between the parties, a position that is both surprising and improper for broadcasting that is funded by the U.S. government.”
Perhaps most consequentially, in 2018, the Senate Committee on Appropriations cleared legislation directing Pompeo to use the BBG to counter Iranian influence. The law directed the BBG to devote its resources to highlighting the Iranian government’s proxies in Syria and Yemen and the damage caused by the Iranians’ foreign policy. In February 2019, Masih Alinejad, who hosts a show on VOA Persian, appeared with Pompeo in Washington to do a photo op purportedly demonstrating the administration’s concern for women’s rights inside Iran. (The BBG, which in 2018 rebranded as the U.S. Agency for Global Media, did not respond to requests for comment.)
VOA Persian journalists and staffers began demonstrating their support for the Trump administration on social media, sometimes urging the administration to be even tougher on Iran. On May 19, a missile believed to have originated in east Baghdad, home to Iranian-backed Shiite militias, struck near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Javanmardi tweeted to Trump: “Mr. President you have to punish the Iranian regime. They have attacked the site of the American Embassy and should be punished. A simple warning should not be sufficient.”
In time, VOA employees began targeting critics of Trump’s policies. In March, Saman Arbabi, the co-host, creator, and executive director of “Parazit,” a popular satirical program that has been compared to The Daily Show, sent a tweet to Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., comparing her hijab to hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan. He and fellow VOA host Alinejad have repeatedly targeted the National Iranian American Council, which favors engagement between the U.S. and Iran.
Similar attacks directed at anti-Trump journalists and human rights experts were leveled earlier this year by the Iran Disinformation Project, an organization funded by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. But when the Iran Disinformation Project’s actions were publicized, Congress terminated its government funding. The center’s special envoy and coordinator, Lea Gabrielle, said, “It was never the intent of the Global Engagement Center to have anyone tweeting at U.S. citizens.”
Yet that’s exactly what’s happening at the VOA Persian. It’s not just Trump-style tweets. The changing editorial direction of the site is turning it into a potentially dangerous propaganda channel for hard-line Iran hawks at a time when parts of the U.S. government seem determined to start a war with Iran.
Correction: September 24, 2020
An earlier version of this story said that a missile that struck near the U.S. embassy in Iraq was fired on May 20, 2019, prompting a Twitter response from Donald Trump. The Trump tweet was in response to a later missile attack by Iran against U.S. interests and the reference to it has been removed from this story. This story has also been updated to reflect that the May 2019 missile attack happened on May 19.