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Zahra Sultani: Iran’s lies are as big as its insecurities

Commentary

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

These words were allegedly spoken by Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany. They represent the entire political strategy of the Iranian regime today. No regime in the world repeatedly and blatantly lies with such effectiveness as the Islamic Republic of Iran. As someone who grew up under the Iranian regime, I am better than most at detecting these lies.

On April 1st, an Israeli missile attack on the Iranian consulate compound in Damascus, Syria killed seven high-ranking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), two of whom were heads of operations in Syria and Lebanon. Twelve days later, Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at targets inside Israel. The interception of 99 percent of the missiles and drones by the Iron Dome, as well as the air defences of allies and regional partners, did not stop the IRGC and Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, from telling tales of their victory. 

On Sunday, April 21, at a publicly broadcasted meeting with members of IRGC, Khamenei thanked the commanders for “showcasing the glory and the determination” of the regime on the global stage. Some of the biggest Western and international media outlets have called Iran’s attack on Israel “historic,” describing it as the largest-ever drone strike in the world and the biggest missile attack in history. State-led media in Iran are now running stories on every and any single flattering word spoken by foreign journalists and analysts. Through their lies, they are tooting their own horn about how they defied and humiliated the “evil Zionist regime,” despite Israel’s sophisticated superpower military allies. 

Meanwhile, Farsi and even some Arabic social media are filled with users poking fun at the pointlessness of launching more than 300 hundred drones and missiles at Israel with little to no damage to show for it. But Khamenei merely addressed this as a “peripheral issue,” insisting the real point of Iran’s attack was the demonstration of its military potency and its domination of Israel.

That he’s been unprepared to reckon with the military failure isn’t a huge surprise but it does prompt the question: Why was it such an apparent failure, when the IRGC is ostensibly so familiar with Israel’s defence system?

After all, they have been dealing with it for decades by attacking Israel through their proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. In reality, Iran always knew that it could not infiltrate the Iron Dome. The truth is the IRGC did not intend to. That’s why they chose to tell a big enough lie and used hundreds of missiles and drones to convince us that they really meant it. But as we Persians like to say, “Picking up too large of a stone means you won’t hit.” 

The image of hundreds of missiles flying into Israeli airspace did however give some advantage to the Iranian regime. In the minds of people watching the news globally, particularly in Arab nations, Iran became an actual adversary to Israel. The current propaganda by the Iranian regime and its allies is focused on maximizing that image and legitimizing Iran as a big player. The attack on their consulate forced Iran’s hand into directly attacking Israel, after decades of hiding in the shadows.

So naturally, they will capitalize on it and spin the optics in every possible way to score international and domestic political points. To pro-Palestinian civilians in Arab countries, Iran’s attack on Israel was a moment of revenge. It was a glimpse of hope that someone can stand up to the so-called “Zionist bully” in favour of the people of Gaza.

Their Arab governments may not feel the same way, but people in Arab nations (and even here in Canada) celebrated Iran’s attack, and the Iranian regime’s popularity among Arabs has reached new heights. On Instagram, bloggers were posting the Iranian flag as their choice for who they’d bet on to win a third World War started by Iran and Israel. In parts of Iraq and in several other Arab countries, people took to the streets to cheer on Iran’s actions by waving Iranian and Palestinian flags. 

And yet within Iran, the majority of Iranians and political dissidents reject the regime. But they deeply fear a foreign invasion or war. The recent attacks took place at the same time as Iran has been cracking down on women defying strict Islamic dress code laws, which has led to a lot of criticism directed at the regime. However, the regime uses the fear of war and instability to silence Iranians into submission. For many years, Iranian leadership has accused political dissidents of having plans to turn Iran into another war-torn Iraq or Syria. There lies yet another lie. 

Basij paramilitary force members march during the annual pro-Palestinian Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Day rally as they cover their faces in the style of Palestinian and Lebanese militants in Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 29, 2022. Vahid Salemi/AP Photo.

Iran’s attack, however symbolic, hurt Israel’s image of supremacy in the region, so Israel decided to send a message to re-establish deterrence. Iran’s state-led media reported that “three small drones” from Israel were seen and shot in Isfahan. They said Israel’s attack was so small and unimportant that it was not worth talking about. In reality, Israel launched a missile that, without any interception by the Iranian military, hit an air defence radar in the central Iranian city of Isfahan that guards the Natanz nuclear facility. The message was clear: don’t play with fire or Natanz will be next. However, Iran knows Israel had to act and it has no intention to escalate. At this point, neither Iran nor Israel want a direct conflict. Israel has dozens of its citizens held hostage by Hamas and can not afford to be distracted.

While the Western media is still talking about the size of Iranian missiles and the threat of regional instability, Iran hides its true internal worries. And they are not about Israel. 

Iran is facing an internal crisis in Syria, where it is suspected a group within Bashar al-Assad’s regime, who are unhappy about the presence of IRGC in Syria, are leaking information about the location of IRGC members to Israel. Naturally, Israel has been allegedly using this information to take action and assassinate high-ranking generals of the IRGC. 

The bigger, more painful issue that Supreme Leader Khamenei is facing right now is the backstabbing and treason of his major allies and the waning regional influence this represents. The Iranian regime’s dream of building its empire has been shattered by this betrayal. Iran’s attack on Israel was not so much a show of force against Israel as a warning to its treacherous proxies. These were warning shots to those trying to cut the IRGC out of Syria, Lebanon, and other territories of interest to the Islamic regime of Iran. 

‘You don’t have a First Amendment right to camp out on campus’: FIRE president Greg Lukianoff on how to determine when protest goes too far

Commentary

Yesterday at Yale University, police officers arrested dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment on school grounds, one of a growing number of organized demonstrations on college campuses across America. While the protests are ostensibly aimed at supporting Palestinian civilians amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, there have been numerous reported instances of protesters engaging in the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and faculty.

Similar developments were present on Parliament Hill in Ottawa over the weekend. Ottawa Police are reportedly investigating possible instances of hate speech, including chants in favour of the October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel.

The Hub spoke to Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a U.S.-based civil liberties group dedicated to defending free speech and individual rights. He spoke about the protests, how to determine when protected expression crosses the line into harassment, and the current state of free speech in academic institutions.

SEAN SPEER: What’s your reaction to the protests at Columbia University, Yale University, and elsewhere? And what is the balance here between supporting free speech and protecting Jewish students and faculty?

GREG LUKIANOFF: Since October 7th we’ve definitely seen a combination of clearly protected speech by pro-Palestinian students—speech that we’ve proudly defended because we are a nonpartisan organization; we will always defend people regardless of the content of their speech—but we’ve also seen an awful lot of assault, we’ve seen a lot of shout-downs, we’ve seen a lot of vandalism, and we’ve seen a lot of unprotected speech. It’s been accelerating for several months now.

Probably one of the worst places for this phenomenon has been Columbia University in New York City. What happened over the weekend, with the crackdown on the encampments that they had there, was interesting from a free speech standpoint, partially because you don’t have a First Amendment or free speech right to camp out on campus grounds. You have a protest right. But generally, every school in the country has rules that basically say, “No, you can’t camp here. You can’t turn this into your own encampment.” They just haven’t been enforcing them. So Columbia, to a degree, is paying the price for not actually fairly enforcing their rules, going far back.

Now, do I think that in the course of this, there are students engaged in protected speech who are getting in trouble? I have very little doubt that there are. And we want to know about those cases. But we’ve also seen, particularly at Columbia, examples of assault. Certainly examples of students being blocked and surrounded. Also, students engaging in things that, by pretty much any definition, would count as discriminatory harassment, which is a severe, persistent, and pervasive patterns of behaviour that a reasonable person would understand is discriminatory. And that’s something that we’ve seen, unfortunately, all over the country.

Now at Yale, we even know the student who was stabbed in the eye with a Palestinian flag, and she had to go to the hospital for it. That obviously isn’t protected. I think that there was a chance for a lot of these schools to prevent a lot of this from escalating by simply, fairly, and evenly enforcing their rules from the very beginning. But in a lot of cases, they simply didn’t.

One thing that readers really need to understand is that if you care about free speech on campus, you need to know that last year was the biggest year for deplatforming in recorded history, that we know of, on American college campuses. Deplatforming includes getting speakers disinvited and shout-downs. Yet this year, 2024, is going to blow 2023 out of the water, even just from shout-downs. And that has overwhelmingly come from pro-Palestinian students. Some of them have engaged in violence, including at Berkeley where they chased off an IDF speaker, for example, several weeks ago.

I sometimes see people arguing as if violence is just an extreme form of free speech. I always have to correct them like, “No, violence is the antithesis of what freedom of speech is for.” Freedom of speech is for the peaceful resolution of differences. Violence is completely the opposite and it should not be tolerated at all on college campuses. Students engaging in violence against their fellow students should be expelled. They deserve due process, but they should also be prosecuted because this is this has been getting out of hand for months now.

New York City police officers in riot gear stand guard as demonstrators chant slogans outside the Columbia University campus, Thursday, April 18, 2024, in New York. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo.

SEAN SPEER: Is there a free speech line to be drawn between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? And how can such a line be discerned?

GREG LUKIANOFF: I don’t think you have to really draw a line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. What you have to ask yourself is, is it discriminatory harassment? Is it a threat? Regardless of what line that falls under. So if you’re surrounding students and threatening them, for example, then it doesn’t matter if you’re calling out Israel or calling out Jews, it’s not protected. And nor should it be.

I think that’s one of the things that American law really gets right. It’s something that we call “the bedrock principle” in the United States, which is you can’t ban speech simply because it’s offensive. But you can ban patterns of behaviour that are discriminatory, for example, or you can ban speech that actually would place a reasonable person in fear of bodily harm or death. So we try to get out of evaluating the offensiveness of the expression and into a reasonable understanding of the behaviour. This is a way to not have to make judgments on whether or not we think one kind of speech is more offensive than the other, which of course, is always a culturally laden evaluation to make. That is difficult in a genuinely multicultural society.

SEAN SPEER: Do you think universities that have permitted these instances of intimidation and violence will face consequences in terms of enrollment, donations, and so on? If so, is there room for a market correction of sorts?

GREG LUKIANOFF: I definitely think students are going to be afraid to apply to places like Columbia, in particular—and particularly Jewish students, but not just Jewish students—because of all of the bad examples they’re seeing there. We already know that Harvard applications are down so far this year as well. There are a lot of donors have been saying that they won’t donate to these schools until they do something. So I think that there is potential for some amount of a market correction. But I think that thinking this will be an easy or fast fix underestimates how bad it’s gotten for such a long time.

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking about a combination of private colleges as well as what you in the United States call “state schools” or public universities or colleges. In either case, what, if any ,role is there for government, in your mind, to address these issues?

GREG LUKIANOFF: In terms of what state schools can do, actually, the government is required to be involved to protect freedom of speech on campus because the First Amendment applies to students’ free speech as well as professors’ free speech. I think they’ve been kind of falling down on the job on this. I think that universities that had speech codes that were unconstitutional, that’s something that the government never should have tolerated in the first place. I think when there are violent shout-downs, that’s something that the government should not be tolerating. I think that the government has really dropped the ball, in a lot of cases, on defending free speech on campus for decades now, and actually, in many cases, have passed regulations that made the issue worse.

SEAN SPEER: Your latest book, The Canceling of the American Mind, sets out a series of institutional and policy reforms to push back against some of the ideological trends on campus that we’ve seen over the past several months and tries to cultivate a free speech culture. In light of some of the developments over the weekend, are there any particular recommendations that you think are especially resonant for the moment?

GREG LUKIANOFF: Well, the very first thing we recommend in the section on higher education is to have a lot fewer jobs in the United States that require a bachelor’s degree. We’ve created an incredibly expensive system. I mean, I know someone who is just realizing that it is probably going to cost their kid $95,000 a year to go to one of these schools. This has been putting Americans in huge debt. We need to really rethink how we do a lot of these things. We need cheaper, more rigorous alternatives to our very strange, and in some cases, very illiberal higher education system in the first place. I think that some of the experiments that are going on at places like the University of Austin give me some hope.

But I think we should be thinking big in terms of the kind of reforms we need. Because even if it was just on bureaucratization and cost alone, American higher education would need major reform. As we were seeing all over the country, particularly in elite colleges, there’s a lot more going on than even just that.