Media wars, Middle East, New in Lobbying

Meet the US war critic who just registered as an agent of Iranian media

A decade and a half after he started writing op-eds slamming US interventionism in the Middle East, a 72-year-old writer in New Mexico has become the first American to register as a foreign agent of Iranian state media.

Yuram Abdullah Weiler disclosed his work for Iran’s state-controlled Press TV media network in a pair of filings with the Department of Justice last week. They cover his work for the outlet since 2012, but Weiler has said he’s worked with other Iranian media starting in 2006.

In a phone interview this week with Foreign Lobby Report, Weiler said he only decided to register after being approached by a local federal agent who “suggested” he file under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The move comes as the Justice Department has been aggressively enforcing the 1938 anti-propaganda law in recent months.

Neither Press TV nor Iran’s UN mission responded to requests for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment.

In the interview, Weiler described himself as a concerned citizen outraged by US foreign policy since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He says he is a US veteran who was assigned to the White House Communications Agency while in the US Army in the 1960s.

“I was really shocked when this country invaded Iraq in 2003,” Weiler said. “And basically, the short version of the story is that my perspective — that invading Iraq was wrong, that it shouldn’t have happened — was very much a minority perspective at the time.”

Weiler says he began writing for the Tehran Times in 2006 after an editor from the outlet, Hamid Golpira, asked him for help with editing.

“It just sort of blossomed, and all of the sudden I was connected with Press TV,” he recalled. “I sent articles, and one thing led to another, and somebody called me and they wanted to pay me for the articles.”

Weiler said he initially declined to be paid and only wanted to share his perspective. His disclosures indicate he did receive some compensation from Press TV between November 2013 and June 2015, but do not indicate how much. He said he currently submits articles pro bono (the filings only mention 68 op-ed articles for Press TV from December 2012 to June 2015).

Over the years, Weiler’s writings for the Iranians have run the gamut on everything from Israel’s “anti-Iran plots” to the need to topple the “white power structure” in the wake of George Floyd‘s death. His work has appeared on websites belonging to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as Hezbollah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia allied with Tehran, according to a biography on the Press TV website. The US government has designated the group as a terrorist organization.

“I am well aware that my editing and writing takes place in the context of an ongoing 40-year-plus propaganda campaign” between the US and Iran.

Yuram Abdullah Weiler

Weiler said the Iranians never told him what to write.

“Nobody ever said, ‘we want to pay you to write an article, and we want you to put this particular slant on it’,” Weiler said. “Basically, I came up with ideas to write myself, and I sent them off, and they published them.”

But he has acknowledged his unique role as a rare US voice in a hostile outlet.

“I am well aware that my editing and writing takes place in the context of an ongoing 40-year-plus propaganda campaign by the US against Iran,” Weiler said in a May interview with the Tehran Times. “So the last thing I want to do is allow anything to pass my scrutiny that could be embarrassing to the Islamic Republic.”

For years, Press TV has come under scrutiny by hawkish groups and the US government (even though then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted “Thank you!” to the outlet in 2015 after it published a poll projecting him the winner of the 2016 election). The outlet is facing hard times, with a potential closure on the horizon amid crippling US sanctions and a coronavirus pandemic that has hit Iran especially hard.

In January 2019, the FBI briefly arrested Press TV anchor Marzieh Hashemi, a dual US-Iranian citizen. US authorities later said that Hashemi, who was released after testifying before a grand jury, helped recruit former US Air Force Intelligence specialist Monica Witt, who went on to defect to Iran. Hashemi’s case became a cause celebre in Iran, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calling her arrest a “violation of freedom of speech.”

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Meanwhile the European Union in 2013 sanctioned Press TV newsroom director Hamid Reza Emadi for his alleged role in “producing and broadcasting the forced confessions of detainees, including journalists, political activists, persons belonging to Kurdish and Arab minorities, violating internationally recognized rights to a fair trial and due process.” The hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has called for his successor, Wahid Tahami, to be sanctioned as well.

“Press TV is part of the regime’s disinformation campaign that uses show trials and forced confessions that are against international law,” Toby Dershowitz, FDD’s senior vice president for government relations and strategy, told Foreign Lobby Report. She said the outlet is part of Iran’s state-run media corporation, IRIB.

“IRIB serves as the primary propaganda organ of the clerical regime and is charged with burnishing the regime’s reputation,” she said. “IRIB seeks to transform its audience at home and abroad into regime sympathizers.”

Weiler’s registration comes two years after a September 2018 executive order on election interference raised the risk for foreign-funded media outlets, the conservative Washington Examiner reported at the time. “China and Iran have unregistered subsidized news outlets in the US — CCTV America and Press TV, respectively,” the article noted.

The US division of CCTV registered under FARA in February 2019 as part of a push by the Justice Department to force foreign media outlets to comply with the law. Most recently, the US branch of Turkey’s state-run TRT registered after the Justice Department ordered it to in August. Press TV so far has not.

Social media networks are also paying attention: Facebook this summer began labeling posts from Press TV and certain other foreign state-controlled media organizations. The company has also blocked their ads targeting US users.

As for Weiler, he says his writing days might be over.

“My gut-level feeling is that I’m really weary of it at this point,” he said. “It seems like this country is hell-bent in going in one direction — I think it’s the wrong direction — and I think my meager efforts are really an exercise in futility.”

Unless, of course, someone were to ask for his opinion.

“I would say that if somebody wants me to write an article or if something comes up, I feel like I can’t resist writing it,” he said. “I would say yes, but I’m certainly not actively soliciting writing work, let’s put it that way.”