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Iran’s Propaganda Offensive against Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan

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[New] 'Iran’s Propaganda Offensive against Pakistan vis-à-vis Afghanistan' Based on analysis of Iran-based/ Iran-origin news reports collected during the timeframe 15 August 2021 till 8 September 2021. Access here: https://projectbaseerat.com/2021/09/25/iran-propaganda-offensive-against-pakistan-vis-a-vis-afghanistan/… #OSINT #propaganda


Report: Ashna Mehmood, Muhammad Ali Azlan, Umar Farooq and Zaki Khalid
The Taliban’s military offensive against the regime of President Ashraf Ghani (beginning in May 2021) sent shockwaves across the world. The abrupt withdrawal of US-led international forces culminated with the Taliban’s takeover of the capital Kabul (15 August 2021). This development was followed by a barrage of news reports, commentaries and blogs accusing Pakistan of supporting the Taliban.

Thereafter, on 17 August 2021, former Afghan spy chief and First Vice President Amrullah Saleh announced the formation of a ‘National Resistance Front’ a.k.a. the ‘Panjshir Resistance’ against the Taliban, patronised by Ahmad Massoud (son of late Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud). Remnants of the Afghan press and especially Iranian news platforms began propagating narratives that tried to discredit the Government of Pakistan’s multi-stakeholder efforts for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

On 31 August 2021, the Taliban announced an offensive against the ‘Panjshir Resistance’ in Baghlan, Panjshir and Parwan provinces. As the Taliban advanced and the ‘resistance’ was receding, Iran-based and Iran-origin platforms launched a coordinated propaganda campaign trying to discredit Pakistan. Some of the key recurring narratives analysed by us include:-

  • Alleged patronage of the Taliban and Haqqani Network by Pakistan’s external spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI); this included particular criticism directed toward the Director General of the ISI.
  • Alleged materiel support to the Taliban by Pakistan, including aircraft and drones.
Research Framework
This report is based on analysis of Iran-based/ Iran-origin news reports collected during the timeframe 15 August 2021 till 8 September 2021. Aggregated content was mostly in Farsi language and was thoroughly translated then interpreted to differentiate between content that criticises Pakistan’s activities and that which rebukes fake news. Those falling in the latter category were excluded from our analysis.

In some instances, we discovered multiple publications of content targeting Pakistan. We grouped together these articles as originating from 62 unique platforms. Subsequently, we executed a detailed Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) scan to profile these platforms. Our profiling parameters pertaining to these platforms include:-

  • Date of Creation: To understand the period in which a particular platform emerged. We accorded preference to information disclosed by the platforms themselves or through authoritative research publications. In cases where such information was not available, we present approximations using domain registration (whois) records. If these were also not available, we mentioned the earliest possible copies of the platform available in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
  • Primary IP Address: The main Internet Protocol address which links to the server hosting the platform. This can help researchers and government officials alike to keep a track of domain changes based on the same IPs.
  • Alexa Rankings: We mentioned the estimated popularity of each platform based on an assessment of previous 90 days’ website traffic information provided by Alexa, an Amazon company. There are over 1.7 billion websites in existence; Global Ranking shows the standing of each platform while Iran Ranking shows the platform’s popularity within the country’s domestic cyberspace. These ranking are dynamics and change with time, and therefore cannot be considered conclusive.
  • Management: Extensive efforts were made to trace, identify and mention the names of one key person leading each platform, their known designation and also an unknown parent organisation they may be part of.
  • Category: Iranian media groups can be roughly divided into three categories: 1) State-owned/ official entities owned and managed by the regime, 2) Semi-official entities that are partially managed and certainly influenced by the regime and private entities that fall into neither of the previous two categories.
  • ITO Registration Check: We mention whether each platform is registered with the Information Technology Organisation (ITO), which acts as an agent for the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. This helps to understand which entities are actually operating within the defined legal and regulatory framework proposed by the regime.
  • IRGC Affiliation: We cross-check, through authentic information sources, whether each platform has reported past/ ongoing links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the prime influence arm of the regime’s Supreme Leader.
We included at least one archived link of ‘objectionable content’ i.e. targeting Pakistan so that the records speak for themselves.

OSINT Dossier on Iranian Platforms targeting Pakistan

Summary of Findings

On the basis of accumulated OSINT, we were able to determine the following:-

  • Almost a third of identified platforms engaged in campaigns against Pakistan had known functional affiliations with the IRGC.
  • More than half of the identified platforms were registered with the ITO.
  • Some of the platforms had common back-end ownerships. In this perspective, we were able to determine that the most consistent and coordinated campaigning was executed by platforms operating under the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The state-run IRIB’s mission statement portrays global media as a “battlefield” where “intense” media wars are waged. Though reporting to a supervisory board routinely, the IRIB’s head is directly appointed by, and accountable to, the Supreme Leader of Iran (as per Article 110 of Iran’s Constitution).
  • Apart from IRIB, some of the other state organs that own or patronise platforms include the Endowment (Awqaf) and Charity Affairs Organisation, Ministry of Interior, the country’s judiciary and a trade union (Khanaye Kargar) subordinate to the Supreme Leader.
  • On the non-government side, we identified platforms owned by DEN Group as being coordinated in activities. However, we did not find any evidence linking them to state organs.
  • Visual summary of prominent entities involved in coordinated campaigns against Pakistan (based on Project Baseerat’s OSINT Dossier)
We observed that the largest quantum of publications against Pakistan, by multiple Iran-based/ Iran-origin platforms, emerged on 6 September 2021. This coincides with the Taliban’s claim of ‘conquering‘ Panjshir. Interestingly, on the same day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh had indirectly alluded to Pakistan during his condemnation of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan.

We believe that the intensification of Iranian propaganda against Pakistan on this date was not coincidence, rather pre-planned. More than three dozen publications were pushed during this date alone, almost all in Farsi.

While an impact assessment of these reports is beyond the scope of this report, we observed multiple Telegram channels and social media accounts amplifying narratives publicised by the identified platforms.

Conclusion
The execution of coordinated propaganda campaigns by Iran against Pakistan (vis-à-vis Afghanistan) involved both state and non-state elements. However, OSINT indicates that the activities of state-owned and state-patronised platforms were not only more influential, their diversity of narratives also merits particular attention.

It would not be incorrect to proffer that these campaigns against Pakistan were passed down from the highest levels of the Iranian regime.

 

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