Iran and Turkey coordinate foreign opinion influence peddling

Tehran and Ankara pursue joint efforts abroad as they crack down on media at home.

Monday 03/08/2020
A file picture shows Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) attending a signing ceremony  in Istanbul, last June (AFP)
A file picture shows Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) attending a signing ceremony in Istanbul, last June (AFP)

 ANKARA – Going beyond coordination on security and political fronts, Turkey and Iran are synchronising their foreign propaganda and media efforts, which they view as an important tool for influencing international opinion.

Experts say Tehran and Ankara are taking advantage of the Arab world’s foreign communication strategies’ weaknesses due to conflicts between individual countries’ agendas.

Last Wednesday, the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministries held their first official consultative meeting devoted to media outreach. The meeting took place through video conference, between Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamis Aksavi and his Iranian counterpart Abbas Mousavi, according to the Anadolu news agency, which quoted Turkish diplomatic sources.

Sources pointed out that Aksavi and Mousavi stressed the need to take the excellent cooperation between the two countries to the field of media, adding that both sides agreed to enhance bilateral ties in this field and to establish mechanisms for this purpose. They also agreed to hold regular and periodic consultative meetings on the issue.

Observers say the meeting was due to Iran and Turkey’s mutual interest in several regional issues, such as the conflict in Yemen where they have succeeded in bringing together factions close to them, including the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Reform Party linked to Ankara and the Iran-backed Houthis. The aim is to push these factions to form a joint front working against Saudi Arabia in the Yemen file and prevent it from implementing the Riyadh Agreement and the required executive arrangements leading to a political solution.

Observers point out that Turkey and Iran have succeeded through various regional media organs in confusing local and international public opinion regarding Yemen. They have depicted the crisis outside its political and military context as a fight to restore power and authority to legitimate Yemeni institutions based on Yemeni, Gulf and international understandings. Turkey and Iran are spinning the issue to accuse the Arab coalition of interfering and imposing their hegemony on Yemen in order to subjugate the country and take control of its strategic ports and sites. This perspective allows Tehran and Ankara to conceal Turkey and Iran’s true agendas, which consist of perpetuating conditions of crises and chaos enabling them to take a foothold on the Red Sea.

So far, pro-Saudi media has not been able to seriously counter the anti-Saudi and anti-Arab coalition campaigns. These campaigns have sought to rely on journalists, politicians and activists from different Arab countries on the basis of their political and ideological loyalties. They have played on Arab nationalistic and leftist narratives, which were popular in the sixties and seventies. Saudi media, by contrast, is treading water and going nowhere despite the significant financial resources at its disposal. Its main problem is its lack of media vision and ability to break with old approaches that focusing on individuals rather than projects and ideas.

Both Turkey and Iran have long used Qatari media to focus attention on the progress of anti-Saudi agendas in Yemen and elsewhere. But now the two countries have moved on to establish satellite channels directly connected to them or under the control of one of their proxies, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah-owned Al-Mayadeen channel, which promotes Iran’s expansionism in the region and glosses over the role of its proxies.

Not to be outdone, Turkey has set up an Arabic-speaking channel staffed by media professionals affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This channels favourite, featured guests are naturally Brotherhood figureheads in various Arab countries, whose known hatred for the ruling regimes in their respective countries has been utilised by Turkey to promote its interference in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Somalia and Yemen, and seek to manufacture a “popular-legitimacy base” for it by feeding on nostalgia for the bygone era of the Ottoman Empire.

Moreover, Turkey has taken advantage of generous Qatari funding to invest in the expansion of numerous Arab satellite channels broadcasting from Turkey and working towards achieving the goals of Ankara’s agenda, as if they were Turkish channels.

By contrast, there are very few projects from the Arab side to try and target Iranian and Turkish audiences in their local languages. Most of the existing projects are based on personal initiatives and lack official support, even though they are achieving exactly what the Arab official media tools have not been able to achieve despite their tremendous financial and technical resources.

Bilateral coordination between Turkey and Iran to develop a joint media strategy reveals that the leaders of the two countries have set conquering Arab media and public opinion space as their top priority, despite the conflicting agendas and interests of both countries in the region, while the Arab media continues to be fragmented and self-centred, unable to deliver its messages to anyone.

Turkish writer Ilhan Tanir said that understanding the bilateral cooperation in media and communication between Tehran and Ankara shows the extent of isolation of both regimes from the Western world and their tendency to increasingly clash with global values ​​and human rights.

“Only last week, while most of the world condemned the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, only a few praised the move. The sympathetic quarters included Hamas and some Syrian figures affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime. […] On Sunday, the adviser of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, congratulated Turkey on reopening the Hagia Sophia mosque following a hiatus of 86 years,” said Tanir, who is also editor-in-chief of the English section of Turkish Affairs.

The Iranian regime has accumulated decades-worth of experience in cracking down on critical media outlets. The brutal repression of what was known as the Iranian “press spring” between 1997-2000 is still present in peoples’ minds.

Similarly, the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been on a rampage against opposition media outlets since the attempted coup in 2016. Hundreds of media outlets have been closed and hundreds of journalists imprisoned for criticising the government.