Iran protests: London-based TV channel sparks Iranian leaders’ ire

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Abu Dhabi

A top Iranian military official issued a warning to Saudi Arabia last week as his government continued to face off against protesters at home. “You are involved in this matter and know that you are vulnerable, it is better to be careful,” he said at the sidelines of a military drill.

Major General Hossein Salami, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was referring to what state news outlets called a “media war” that they say is being waged against “the Iranian youth and nation” by foreign conspirators seeking to create unrest in the country by supporting protesters there.

Then, on Thursday Iran again warned Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom, to “stop interfering in the country’s internal affairs.”

Iran last week said it sanctioned a number of media outlets in the UK for “supporting terrorism” and “inciting violence”, reported Tasnim news agency The sanctioned entities include, among others, Volant Media, Global Media, and DMA Media, as well as the “anti-Iranian TV channels” that the companies support, such as Iran International, reported Tasnim agency.

Now in their sixth week, protests have swept through the Islamic Republic following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died on September 16 after being detained by “morality police” and taken to a “re-education center,” allegedly for not abiding by the country’s conservative dress code.

As the protests rage, Iran is turning up the heat on its adversaries, mainly the United States and Israel. But last week, Saudi Arabia found itself in the line of fire, which risks further complicating attempts by the two regional rivals to mend ties.

Riyadh hasn’t publicly commented on the protests. The kingdom’s foreign minister refused to give his view when asked to during an interview with Al Arabiya news channel on October 12.

“Saudi Arabia has a fixed policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of states,” he said. “Surely, we are following [the situation] and we wish Iran and its people the best.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia severed ties in 2016 and both parties have backed opposite sides in proxy conflicts across the Middle East. Last year, they began direct talks in an attempt to improve relations. Baghdad has hosted five rounds of talks so far, the last of which was held in April.

At the heart of Iran’s most recent accusations against Saudi Arabia may be Iran International, a Persian-language news channel that broadcasts from London. The channel has become one of the go-to sources for many Persian speakers looking for news on the protests. It has been at the forefront of covering the demonstrations, getting breaking news and exclusive footage of the events on the ground. Its Twitter account has over a million followers.

Founded in 2017, Iran International has previously come under scrutiny by the Iranian government. Some say it is due to their coverage of the protests at home, which in recent weeks have rocked the Islamic Republic.

Salami didn’t name the channel in his warning, but government-backed Iranian media last week accused Saudi Arabia of funding it. Saudi Arabia has not addressed the allegations. Karim Sa djadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington DC, said on Twitter that Iran has demanded the shuttering of the channel in talks with Saudi Arabia, citing a senior Gulf official.

In 2018, Iran International released a statement denying connections to any government, including Saudi Arabia or Iran after The Guardian reported that it was funded by a firm whose director has ties to Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia did not comment on the Guardian report. The Saudi government did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

“We have heard these accusations before most often promoted by those in whose interests it is to deny a free press,” a spokesperson for Volant Media told CNN.

“Iran International and its sister channel, Afghanistan International, are editorially independent television channels owned by Volant Media, a company based in London owned by a Saudi Arabian/British citizen; it has no state backing or affiliation,” added the spokesperson.

Azadeh Moaveni, associate professor of journalism at New York University, described the channel as “one of the most pernicious and damaging forces to enter the Iranian media sphere,” calling it an arm of Saudi foreign policy. “I would not describe Iran International as pro-reform, or organically Iranian in any manner,” she told CNN.

Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Tehran who was also an adviser to the Iranian nuclear talks negotiating team, said there’s “no doubt” that Iran International is funded by Saudi Arabia. A prominent figure on state-funded Iranian outlets, Marandi added that Iran International spreads rumors, ethnic and sectarian strife “and it tries to use misinformation to create fear, chaos and promote violence.”

Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a media conglomerate with ties to the Saudi ruling family, has run the Persian language website of the UK’s Independent newspaper since 2018. Its account on Instagram, where many Iranians get their news, has over 600,000 followers.

CNN’s parent company is Warner Bros. Discovery, which has a partnership with Saudi Research and Media Group, a Saudi joint stock company.

Saudi Arabia has for years accused Iran of doing the same with its own Arabic-language news channels: targeting Arab audiences with propaganda. State-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting runs Al Alam TV, an Arabic news channel that has interviewed Saudi opposition figures and has been blocked by Arab states. Iran-backed Hezbollah’s Al Manar channel has also been blocked.

“It’s about time Iran gets a taste of its own medicine,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi author and analyst. “Iran has spent decades inciting and funding instability in the Arab world so having them pay the price of such behavior themselves is certainly a source of satisfaction to a lot of people,” he told CNN.

The channel “is making an impact on public behavior in Iran and they are nervous about their domestic situation,” added Shihabi.

Analysts say that Iran’s tight grip on domestic media outlets and its lack of freedom of expression have created “fertile ground” for anti-establishment platforms such as Iran International to flourish.

“It is not so much the broadcasters themselves, but the situation in Iran has provided the possibility for broadcasters outside of Iran to gather a certain degree of popularity in the Iranian context,” said Gholam Khiabany, a reader in media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Harun Najafizada, a former journalist at Iran International who is now a director at the sister Afghanistan International news channel, said the parent company Volant Media is privately funded but “I don’t care as long as they do not influence my editorial take,” adding that shareholders never interfere in decision making.

Iran International stood out from other Western-backed Persian language news outlets “by taking the side of the disenchanted, oppressed, voiceless people,” while competitor Persian channels in the West were focused on bringing balance by giving the Iranian government a voice, he told CNN.

“They have a vision, of course – they don’t do it for God,” said Najafizada, referring to the shareholders. “That vision is democracy.”

Just two days after Salami’s first warning, however, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, was quoted saying that the two countries should reopen their embassies to facilitate a rapprochement, according to the semi-official Iranian news agency ISNA.

“We are neighbors of Saudi Arabia and we must coexist,” he was cited as saying by ISNA. “The embassies of the two countries should reopen in order to solve our problems in a better way.”

Business owners and factory workers in Iran’s Kurdish region went on strike over the weekend as anti-government protests continued.

Video shared with CNN by pro-reform activist outlet IranWire shows Sanandaj, the capital of the Kurdish region, quiet at the beginning of the work week as stores remain shut.

The Norway-based Iranian rights group Hengaw said shopkeepers were on strike in Bukan, Sanandaj and Saqez, as well as Marivan. Strikes and protests have become common in cities and towns across Iran as people unite against the regime.

The nationwide protests are now in their fifth week, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died three days after being arrested by the country’s morality police and taken to a re-education center.

Here’s the latest on this developing story:

  • Iran will file a lawsuit against the United States claiming the US had direct involvement in recent riots, Kazem Gharibabadi, the deputy head of the Iranian judiciary and secretary of the country’s High Council for Human Rights, said on Saturday, according to state news agency IRNA.
  • The Coordinating Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations (CCITTA) on Saturday called for a nationwide strike in protest at the recent deaths and detention of students in the country, according to a statement published on Telegram. The council also announced a period of public mourning for students who have died in recent weeks from Thursday through Saturday, and called for a sit-in on Sunday, October 23 and Monday, October 24.
  • Protests took place in central Berlin on Saturday, with close to 80,000 people standing in solidarity with Iran, German state broadcaster RBB reported, citing police officials.

Israel and Lebanon could sign maritime border agreement on Thursday, Biden energy adviser says

Senior US adviser for global energy security Amos Hochstein said on Sunday that Israel and Lebanon could sign their historic maritime borders agreement as early as Thursday.

  • Background: “We’re going to have a deal. We’re going to sign it hopefully this Thursday,” Hochstein said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “And I hope that this continues our commitment to stability in the region and prosperity for both countries,” he added.
  • Why it matters: The US-brokered agreement settles a years-long maritime border dispute involving major oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean. Still technically at war, Lebanon and Israel both have much to gain. Not only does the agreement cool down recent security tensions, it also allows Israel to begin drilling and exporting gas to Europe and offers potential economic relief to Lebanon.

Human Rights Watch says LGBTQ people subjected to arrest and mistreatment in Qatar ahead of World Cup

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Qatar’s security forces of arbitrarily arresting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and subjecting them to ill-treatment in detention ahead of the FIFA World Cup.

  • Background: HRW said in a report issued Monday that it documented six cases of “severe and repeated beatings and five cases of sexual harassment in police custody between 2019 and 2022,” the most recent of which took place in September. Security forces arrested people in public places based solely on their gender expression and unlawfully searched their phones, the HRW report said, adding that as a requirement for their release, security forces mandated that transgender women detainees attend “conversion therapy sessions” at a government-sponsored “behavioral healthcare” center. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and punishable by imprisonment. A Qatari official told CNN that the HRW allegations “contain information that is categorically and unequivocally false.”
  • Why it matters: Ahead of the FIFA World Cup, which starts November 20, Qatar has said it would welcome LGBT visitors, after concerns were raised from the LGBT community over how safe they will be at the tournament.

Egypt has ordered the release of prominent activist, presidential pardon committee member says

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Monday pardoned a prominent activist and former parliamentarian, Zyad el-Elaimy, according to a presidential pardon committee member.

  • Background: Jailed since 2019, el-Elaimy was one of the key participants in the 2011 uprisings that led to the downfall of former longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. His release is “in response to calls by political parties and forces,” presidential pardon committee member Tarek el-Khouly wrote on Facebook. Young members of political parties, politicians and the presidential pardon committee also coordinated to help secure his release, added el-Khouly. El-Elaimy was given a five-year sentence last year on charges of spreading false news.
  • Why it matters: The release comes two weeks ahead of November’s COP27 summit in Egypt. The country has come in for sharp criticism in recent months, with activists denouncing global leaders’ attendance in the light of Sisi’s questionable human rights record. Egypt has been promoting moves to improve its rights record, but activists and critics have described recent reforms as mostly cosmetic.

United Arab Emirates: #Diwali

Also known as Deepavali, the holiday is widely trending across social platforms in the United Arab Emirates, with many flooding Twitter with colorful photos of candles and wishing joy and prosperity to the world.

Some are also posting photos of themselves in traditional celebratory garments. Diwali is one of the most important festivals in Hinduism, the largest religion in India. This year, it falls on October 24.

India and the UAE share a strong political and economic relationship, one that has grown closer in recent years.

The Indian expatriate community in the UAE is around 3.5 million, according to the Indian embassy in the UAE, adding that it is reportedly the largest ethnic community in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf state. Approximately 15% of the diaspora are in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, added the Indian embassy, while the rest are in six northern Emirates, including business hub Dubai.

The UAE also accounts for 33% of foreign remittances to India, at more than $20 billion a year.

Diwali is also significant for Sikhs and Jains. It is celebrated in India, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries with South Asian diasporas.

Palestinian girls wearing traditional embroidered dresses perform during a ceremony marking the start of the olive harvest season in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza on Sunday.

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