The bulk of Kremlin-sponsored propaganda trying to dignify the invasion of Ukraine has been directed at Europe and the West. But recently-published content from Sputnik Persian and the Russian embassy in Tehran shows that even in these fraught times, the Kremlin has not forgotten the Iranians.
On February 23, the eve of the assault, Russian Ambassador to Tehran Levan Dzhagaryan joined a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the Russian Defender of the Fatherland Day. Days later, he would publicly claim that the Iranian people supported the invasion, despite growing evidence to the contrary.
A Never-Ending Feedback Loop: Sputnik Persian and Iranian State Media
Sputnik and some other Russian “news” platforms are now blacklisted in the European Union and other parts of the world, and on individual platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Google Europe. Sputnik went offline for a few hours on Friday, but for those outside the EU at least, it was back with a vengeance later.
Sputnik Persian and a scattering of Arabic-language, pro-Putin outlets have published some content that has not appeared anywhere else in the Russian disinformation ecosystem. This includes a strange claim that Ukrainian soldiers deliberately attacked Chinese nationals with artillery fire.
One of Sputnik’s recently-published items, also shared by the Russian Embassy in Tehran, was the claim that a group of Iranians had expressed solidarity with the Russian military on social media. An accompanying picture showed a person, supposedly an Iranian, holding up an Iranian flag bearing a big, tacked-on letter “Z” – the sign carved on Russian military vehicles operating in Ukraine – together with the words “We support Russia!”. In response to the report, some Iranian social media users posted videos of themselves tearing up pictures of Putin.
Sputnik Persian has also compared the wide-ranging, freshly-enacted sanctions against Russia with those imposed on Iran. It carried articles on how Russians could bypass the sanctions, and interviewed Shuaib Bahman, described as an Iranian expert on Middle Eastern affairs, who suggested that the two countries might share their experience and collaborate to weaken or foil the restrictions.
Sputnik’s reports have been echoed in Iranian pro-regime media as well. The hardline daily Kayhan republished “news” from Sputnik about China and other countries that refused to back the sanctions. Javan newspaper, controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, also laundered “reports” by Sputnik and other Russian state-controlled media disparaging the government of Ukraine.
Before the invasion, too, Iranian news agencies including IRNA had followed Moscow’s line, claiming: “Russian officials have no intention of attacking Ukraine, but the West, so as to put pressure on Moscow, insists that war is imminent.”
Elsewhere, in a line with Sputnik’s websites in other languages on Friday, Sputnik Persian touted two entirely false reports: that Volodymyr Zelenskiyy had fled to Poland, a myth was debunked hours later, and that the fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which rang alarm bells around the world, was the result of Ukrainian nationalist “provocations”. It also sought to whitewash the destruction of people’s homes in cities like Kherson on the black sea by claiming Russian forces were distributing food to locals.
Russians, MPs and Hardline Papers Round on the British Embassy in Tehran
The Russian embassy in Tehran has also strived to publicly justify the invasion. Ambassador Levan Dzhagaryan told Iranian media: “We had no intention of entering this war but we were forced into it. We had no other option.”
After the Russian military entered Ukraine, the British embassy in Tehran raised the Ukrainian flag in a show of support for the latter. The Russian embassy lambasted this show of support, issuing a statement that declared countries that had “destroyed Libya and Syria, and disgracefully fled from Afghanistan, have no moral right to condemn Russia.”
Media outlets affiliated with the Iranian regime, as well as several current MPs, joined Russian diplomats in admonishing the British embassy. “If, to show solidarity, you raise the flag of countries that have been illegally invaded and colonized by your own esteemed government, the British embassy will inevitably turn into a flag shop,” wrote Nezamoddin Mousavi, spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s presidium, in an address aimed at the British ambassador.
Under the headline “The British Model”, the official newspaper Iran also criticized the British embassy. “Evidence shows that this demagogic action by the British embassy is meant to encourage distortion [of the news about Ukraine],” it claimed. “Otherwise, this country has taken no serious measures to support Ukraine. ‘Solidarity with the people of Ukraine’ is a codeword for a media attack on Iran, in the wake of the lie that Iran is supporting military action against Ukraine.”
Is Any of This Making a Difference?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given the Iranian opposition another chance to throw their weight behind Putin – publicly, at least. But last week security forces were stationed outside the Russian Embassy in Tehran to prevent any protests, suggesting a tacit acknowledgement that not all Iranians agreed.
As such, a group of citizens gathered outside the Ukrainian Embassy to protest instead. The chants heard included “The Russian embassy is a nest of spies!” while the slogan “Death to Putin”, in English, was spray-painted on the Russian embassy’s wall. State media outlets duly “explained” that these activities had been encouraged by the British ambassador.
When the invasion got under way on February 24, even the Russian army conceded that the Kremlin had prepared a vast, multi-pronged propaganda campaign in a bid to excuse itself. Iran is among the countries affected, but Putin will face a difficult road in convincing ordinary Iranians, whose stance on Iran-Russia relations is becoming more polarized vis-à-vis that of the government with each passing year.
In fact, the current information distortion is making things worse. As recently as February 10, the Iranian public and even the government criticized the Russian ambassador for honoring a 19th-century predecessor of his: Alexander Griboyedov, a Qajar-era diplomat whose name is associated in Iran with violence, subjugation to Russia, and national humiliation. Griboyedov and his colleagues were murdered by an angry mob that stormed the embassy on February 11, 1829.
In an unexpected move, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also expressed his support for Ukraine. “The great nation of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy,” he tweeted, “Your honorable and almost unrivalled resistance uncovered the Satanic plots of enemies of mankind. Trust that the great nation of Iran is standing by you, and admiring this heroic persistence.”