Iran spy services claim infiltration of foreign-based opposition in new series

Iran's state broadcaster is airing a documentary series to show off the country’s intelligence services’ infiltration of the foreign-based opposition.

al-monitor A still from the documentary "Last Station of Lies," shows Ruhollah Zam. Photo by Fars News Agency.

Mar 6, 2019

Iran's state broadcaster is currently airing "Last Station of Lies," a controversial documentary series that claims to reveal the truth about outside forces seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Part two of the series focuses on Amad News. Founded in 2015 by Ruhollah Zam, an exiled journalist based in Paris, Amad News has long been demonized by the Islamic Republic, cast as a news source that incites violence and promotes regime change through the dissemination of fake news. Amad News operates across a variety of platforms, including Telegram, the most popular social media network in Iran.

The documentary includes video chats between Zam and a "source" inside the Iranian government, who provides Zam with detailed but fabricated information. This source is actually an agent working with Iranian intelligence to entrap Zam. In the chats, the agent offers Zam insider information in exchange for intelligence on leaders of various foreign-based anti-Iran opposition groups, whom Zam is in close contact with.

Amad News has long been a thorn in the Iranian government's side. It devoted special coverage to the nationwide protests that broke out in Iran in late 2017 and early 2018, sparked by economic grievances. The news outlet relied on amateur videos, which it said were submitted by subscribers. Amad News also said that many of its reports were based on intelligence from informants inside the Islamic Republic.

Amad News claims it has deep influence among Iranian authorities, as well as access to classified information. It previously released documents alleging that a daughter of Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the powerful outgoing head of the judiciary, had spied for the UK government. Iranian authorities have vehemently denied these reports, insisting that Amad News' stories are baseless and intended to only draw a bigger audience. They accuse Zam of working for "the CIA, Mossad and several European intelligence organizations."

During the December 2017 and January 2018 protests, the Iranian government said Amad News was engaged in sabotage, provoking protesters to bring down the regime. In one case, Amad News' Telegram channel showed protesters how to make Molotov cocktails to attack the police.

The documentary now reports it has uncovered Zam’s links with a wide spectrum of foreign-based Iranian opposition groups, including monarchists, senior members of the Green Movement, and Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which was removed from the US government's terrorist list in 2012.

The bulk of the documentary focuses on a fake regime-change plot dubbed “Cyrus II.” The Iranian agent seemingly dupes Zam into reporting on Amad News that an unnamed person will travel to Iran via Israel to restore the monarchy. The story was later relayed on Amad News, word for word, and rapidly went viral, with many opposition figures claiming they were "Cyrus II," the would-be ruler of Iran.

Amad News has dedicated much of its coverage to envisioning alternatives to the Iranian establishment. This includes reinstating a constitutional monarchy, with exiled prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran's last king Mohammad Reza Shah (who was ousted in 1979), in power. However, Zam has lately been at odds with Pahlavi. In the documentary, Zam suggests that Pahlavi is unfit to govern, stating that he is not open to criticism and would execute opponents if he were to gain power.

Zam, 45, reacted with defiance to the documentary. Zam, whose father is a cleric with a long history of culture-related public service in Iran, insisted that the agent had been assigned to assassinate him outside the UK Embassy in Paris. "But the conspiracy was neutralized," he said, "thanks to my vigilance and that of my advisers. The French government has also been kept fully informed throughout the entirety of the case."

Following the January 2018 protests, Iran's minister of information and communications technology officially requested Telegram to remove the Amad News channel due to its promotion of violence. Telegram approved the request. However, Amad News found its way back, with a new name: Seday-e Mardom, or Voice of the People. It did not take long for Amad News to gain back the subscribers it had lost. 

It's unclear whether the Iranian public sees Amad News as a reliable news source. Amad News has capitalized on an information vacuum in Iran, given its lack of private news networks that challenge the state. Amad News' target audience desires information and analysis from sources whose narratives oppose those of state media. Many have blamed the Iranian state broadcaster and its lack of professional coverage for the quick rise of Amad News.

A former member of the Islamic Students Association, a Reform-leaning movement in Iranian universities, tweeted, "Now the time has come for a documentary to be made on why Zam could sell the Iranian audience all that nonsense while our domestic media, enjoying whopping financial support, are losing viewers on a daily basis. That new documentary should be dubbed 'the collapse of the public’s trust.'" 

Another user responded that Amad News has a lot in common with Iran's hard-line state media: "Despite the good start, Amad News has long been on a downward trend … because the type of journalism [it practices] resembles that of [ultraconservative daily] Kayhan. But since Amad News is viewed as an opposition outlet, many still keep it [on their phones]. … Sometimes you feel too embarrassed to forward the stories, as they carry too many slurs."

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