In the summer of 2017, an Australian academic was the guest of honor at a newspaper office in Tehran. For those who follow the Iranian mediascape, the daily Kayhan is a familiar name. Once mocked by the travel guide Lonely Planet for being “slightly to the right of Genghis Khan”, Kayhan doesn’t just parrot the official positions of the Iranian regime; it effectively makes many of its own stories by using its deep sources in the country’s security forces. Not just artists, activists or independent journalists, but even government officials, live in the fear of being the subject of a story in Kayhan that could deploy false allegations to lay the groundwork for their downfall. Within the country’s journalistic community, there’s a saying that sums up the paper’s powerful position: “Read yesterday’s news in every newspaper, and read tomorrow’s news in Kayhan.”
So why did the anti-West Kayhan host an Australian academic – not just for an interview, but for an audience with the paper’s powerful publisher and editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari?
Tim Anderson wasn’t just any academic. Before he was expelled in 2019 from his job as a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney over antisemitism allegations, the 68-year-old political economist had lived an eventful life. This included his conviction, imprisonment and finally pardon over an alleged conspiracy by an India-based cult to murder a far-right Australian activist, as well as another conviction and eventual acquittal on appeal over an alleged role in the Sydney Hilton Hotel Bombing of February, 1978.
More to the point for his Iranian hosts, Anderson’s had been a rare voice in Western academia in outright defense of Iran’s military intervention in Syria, which has helped President Bashar al-Assad hold on to power at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. Anderson had visited Syria in late 2013, while the war was raging, to meet with Assad and tell everyone who would listen that reports about the Syrian regime’s atrocities were “fiction”.
The 2017 visit wasn’t Kayhan’s first encounter with Anderson either. In 2014, the newspaper had highlighted an article he wrote for notorious conspiracy theorist website globalreserach.ca on Bashar Assad’s impending ‘victory’ in the presidential elections. In the weeks leading up to Anderson’s visit, Kayhan published two interviews by him in which he praised Iran’s policies in the region, attacked Saudi Arabia and lauded the Syrian regime for “consistently resisting the domination of Israeli Jews and their expansion”. These email interviews were followed by the in-person visit in 2017 where Anderson met Shariatmadari.
The Australian had every reason to look forward to this meeting. Appointed directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to his position at the helm of Kayhan, Shariatmadari is easily the most powerful journalist in the country. Having held his job since 1993, he maintains a direct line of contact with the leadership of Iran’s security bodies, even though the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) now has dozens of its own media outlets.
At the meeting, a presumably excited Anderson made more far-reaching claims. He claimed Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States were arming and supporting ISIS. He claimed his own country, Australia, was “providing ISIS with logistical equipment”. He praised Iran as the only major country fighting terrorists since “the Arab League is dead”. He repeated the Assad regime’s baseless slander against civil aid group the White Helmets as “an organization made for warfare and working with Al-Qaeda”. He glowingly spoke of having read the writings of the founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, and quoted him accordingly. Shariatmadari went on to praise Anderson, in turn, as “a rare foreign expert”.
Academics Co-Opted Into Regime “Positive Propaganda”
After the visit, Anderson became a regular contributor to Kayhan and other outlets of the Iranian regime. Speaking regularly to the newspaper, he questioned Israel’s right to exist and said the Iranian regime was uniquely “deserving of leading the region“. He also spoke to the newspaper about his expulsion from USYD (which came about after he showed his students a picture of a Nazi swastika superimposed over the Israeli flag.)
“Tim Anderson’s activities in positive propaganda for the Resistance Front,” Kayhan wrote after the sacking, “and his attacks on the Zionists, in a country [Australia] where the Zionist lobbies are particularly active, have now cost him dearly and he has lost his job.”
In 2016, Anderson and a few colleagues had founded the so-called Center for Counter-Hegemonic Studies (CCHS), a digital platform which increased its activities following Anderson’s expulsion. The group promotes the positions of the Iranian regime as well as other anti-Western states such as Assad’s Syria or North Korea.
On its website, the CCHS has variously run an article in praise of Ghasem Soleimani, the late commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, comparing him to the Argentine-Cuban communist revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. On August 16, the group’s Facebook page promoted an English-language conferenced held by Iran’s Expediency Council, a state body whose members are all directly appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. The “Second International Conference on the Decline of the United States” is calling for papers on the ‘Post-American World.’ It has also accused Amnesty International of running “fake” stories about human rights violations in Iran.
Contacted via their social media accounts, neither CCHS nor Anderson answered IranWire’s questions about the contents of the conference article.
“This Isn’t Random”
Having also visited North Korea to praise the regime there, and alleged that China’s oppression of its Muslim population amounted to a “genocide scam”, Anderson supporting the regime in Tehran is not all that surprising. But his close relationship with state-led media including Iran’s English-language Press TV (which closely covered Anderson’s expulsion and where he was interviewed as recently as this June) raises questions as to the nature of the relationship.
This became more pressing after Anderson started publicly trolling Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic who spent more than two years as a hostage in Iranian prisons before being released in November 2020. In February this year Anderson took to Twitter to baselessly call Moore-Gilbert an “Israeli zealot” who had received “hidden military training” in Israel. The unevidenced allegations were then republished by the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency.
IranWire asked the CCHS about the basis for these claims. Reply came there none. The attacks have also come to Dr. Moore-Gilbert’s attention. She told The Australian in spring: “On what basis is he actually making this claim? I’m neither anti-Syrian nor anti-Iranian, nor am I a Zionist. I’m very sympathetic towards Iran. I love Iran very much. It breaks my heart I can’t return there. I am very connected to the Iranian people; I’m talking to multiple friends in Iran on a daily basis.”
Iranians who have worked with Moore-Gilbert have invariably confirmed her sympathy for the country and praised her work ethic. It is precisely because of her own scholarly independence and tenacity that Dr. Moore-Gilbert became a target of Shariatmadari and his network. The promotion of pro-regime voices like Anderson, and the besmirching the names of independent Iran researchers, are two sides of the same coin.
But for those aware of Shariatmadari’s broader plans, Anderson’s bizarre online posts came as no surprise. “Dr. Anderson is part of a network of experts cultivated by Shariatmadari,” a source in Iran’s foreign ministry told me. “This isn’t random. Shariatmadari was specifically tasked for this by the regime and has been given particular marching orders to make personal relationships with academics in Western countries, particularly those who would support Iran’s positions on Israel.”
IranWire also put this allegation to Anderson via the CCHS, but received no response. The source, a middle-ranking Iranian diplomat, also said he was furious at Shariatmadari’s network being used to by Iranian hardliners to consolidate their positions against the administration of former president Hassan Rouhani.
Indeed, in the fall of 2019, an editorial in Kayhan had taken one of the daily’s favorite positions: opposing the nuclear negotiations with the West in a piece entitled “the mirage of a deal”. The piece started with recounting Anderson’s 2017 visit to the newspaper and praised him for having offered sound strategic advice: that Iran should join up with countries like Venezuela to counter US sanctions. The author went on to criticize President Rouhani for putting his faith in negotiations with the West.
In April 2021, the English-language Tehran Times, which has ties to the IRGC, also published a piece by Anderson in which he said the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015, which Biden was then seemingly trying to revive, was “lying dead in the morgue”.
An aide to Shariamadari confirmed regular contact between him and Anderson. He told me: “Dr. Anderson is respected by us as an anti-Zionist scholar and is indeed one of the friends of the Islamic government. Mr Shariatmadari is tasked by highest authorities of our country to gather such right-seeking voices and amplify them against the global arrogance. That’s why he is encouraged to have such personal ties with people like Dr. Anderson.”
When asked about the attacks on Dr. Moore-Gilbert, the aide changed tone and became enraged. “I have nothing to say about that Zionist whore,” he snapped before hanging up the phone. The name had clearly touched a nerve.
Shariatmadari: An Editorial Policy of Holocaust Denial
Shariatmadari also regularly highlights the work of Holocaust deniers around the world such as Robert Faurisson (who denied the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diaries), Thies Christophersen (a German guard at Auschwitz and a pro-Nazi activist after the war) and Roger Garaudy (a French communist senator turned Islamist Holocaust denier.)
In 2013, when Iran’s newly-appointed foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tried to take back Iran’s denunciations of the Holocaust under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Shariatmadari picked an early fight with the minister, going on to state: “The Holocaust is just a myth built by the Zionists… I have quoted high-ranking and famed European and American historians who’ve offered evidence that leaves no doubt about the Holocaust being a fabrication.”
He continued: “Dozens of high-ranking European historians and hundreds of famed professors and recognized experts of historical documents have, with a completely scientific method, proved that the story of massacre of six million Jews, the gas chambers, and all Zionist claims about them are total lies with criminal goal.”
What is noteworthy about this denial of the Holocaust is Shariatmadari’s repeated reliance on Western experts to buttress his point: a method that, to the admission of his own aides, is authorized by “highest authorities” of the regime.