Publishing fake news and making false claims in the Islamic Republic of Iran is nothing new. And yet between November 22, 2019 and March 19, 2020, the volume of lies propagated by the Iranian government was unprecedented. The six subjects covered by fake news pieces over those four months were the November 2019 protests and the numbers of people killed, Iran’s retaliation for the US assassination of General Ghasem Soleimani, the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp and, finally, the coronavirus epidemic.

On the occasion of the Iranian new year, IranWire examines government misinformation campaigns on these issues in a new six-part series.

In the third part of this series we review claims that tens of American soldiers were killed by the Iranian missile attack on Ain al-Asad Airairbase in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of General Ghasem Soleimani.

On January 3, an American drone strike near Baghdad International Airport killed General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) expeditionary Quds Force, and others who were accompanying him. Five days later, on January 8, IRGC retaliated by launching dozens of missiles at two US airbases in Iraq.

Iran had informed the Iraqi government of the reprisal attack before launching it – and the American military knew to expect the missiles before they struck the airbases. American forces stationed at these airbases therefore took shelter and the attack did not leresult in any loss of American lives. (A number of troops suffered from traumatic brain injuries and concussions.) US defense officials initially confirmed 11 injuries; on February 10, the Pentagon announced that a total of 110 American soldiers were suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

Iran’s official media, however, immediately claimed that at least 80 “American terrorists” were killed in the attack and that the families of the dead refused to speak to the media.

“According to reliable reports from our sources in the area, at least 80 American soldiers were killed and about 200 were injured and immediately evacuated from the airbase,” Fars News Agency reported, quoting “an informed official of IRGC Intelligence” unit. This claim was later picked up by other Iranian official media and was taken even further.

On January 11, General Ali Fadavi, Deputy Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said he knew the number of American casualties but was not ready to discuss the matter.

“We have a lot of information about Iran’s attack on Ain al-Asad airbase but we prefer the Americans themselves confess to the damage done by the Iranian attack,” Fadavi said.

On January 20, General Mohammad Tolaie, Deputy IRGC Commander for Strategic Affairs, claimed the missile attack had “killed at least 134” and had “injured 245” but provided no further information. He was the only IRGC commander who announced a figure of American military casualties but, later, all Iranian news agencies quoted him as a reliable source.

Iranian officials and state media never produced any video, photo or any other evidence to prove their claims about American casualties. Activists supporting the regime instead published a considerable number of fake documents, including Photoshopped evidence, which were published by official media.

The Campaign to Produce Fake “Documentaries”

On the same day as the missile attack, Iran’s state TV aired pictures that it claimed were from the US Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq. “Today, for the first time, pictures have been published that show the moment Iranian missiles struck,” state TV said before the video was aired. “In this video you can also hear the voices of US military [personnel].”

But soon after the pictures were aired, inquisitive social media users discovered that what Iranian TV had shown had nothing to do with Ain al-Asad. The video was actually a composite of two clips – one about Israel, the other about China – previously published on YouTube.

As IranWire reported [Persian link] on January 11, one of these videos had been posted on YouTube on November 12, 2018, under the title “the moment that a Palestinian resistance rocket hits the occupied Ashkelon and the defeat of the Iran Dome.” The second video, originally posted on August 14, 2015, shows a catastrophic explosion at a chemical warehouse in the Chinese port of Tianjin.

The next day, IRGC supporters posted their first fake document about American casualties on social media. It was was quickly picked up by official media outlets.

The “document” was a screenshot of a report on the Newsweek site about the attack on Ain al-Asad airbase. The original version said “As of now, no casualties have been reported” but it had been modified to say that at least 270 had been reportedly killed. The new version was faked in a clumsy manner, however, because the English sentence did not start with a capital letter and it did not end with a full stop.

Even when others showed the original Newsweek report next to the faked version, IRGC supporters did not retreat and insisted that Newsweek must have removed the information.

On January 11, Nasim Online, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, wrote that “in the early hours after the attack, Newsweek estimated that at least 270 American soldiers had met their deaths but a few minutes later it removed this part of the report.”

On the same day, the hardline newspaper Kayhan, run under the supervision of the Supreme Leader’s office, repeated the same claim. “Newsweek has yet to explain why it removed this news item but, probably, it yielded to pressure by American political officials and censored the number of American casualties at Ain al-Asad,” Kayhan wrote.

Almost at the same time that the manipulated Newsweek post was published, IRGC supporters on social media quoted “a tweet by an Israeli reporter” as saying that “a US plane, carrying Americans who were wounded as a result of the Iranian missile attack on Ain al-Asad airbase, has landed in Tel Aviv” and that this plane carried “224 wounded soldiers.”

The IRGC supporters claimed they were quoting a Twitter account under the name of the Israeli reporter Jack Khoury. But this was a fake account; a few hours later, the real Jack Khoury wrote on his real Twitter page that the other account did not belong to him.

A number of official Iranian media outlets still wrote that this Israeli journalist had been forced to disavow his original tweet, to conceal American casualties from the IRGC missile attack. But more than a month before the attack on Ain al-Asad, meaning in late November, Khoury had already said that the Twitter account in question was “a fake account and I have never used it.”

Another fake document presented by Iranian media was the picture of a letter that was first aired on the Arabic TV channel Ofogh. The letter was supposedly written by a James P. Hogan, a Pentagon official responsible for responding to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request submitted by US Congressman Bennie Thompson, which stated that as a result of the attack on Ain al-Asad “139 [soldiers] have been killed and 146 have been injured.”

When Iran’s official media produced this supposed FoI request and the supposed response, Congressman Thompson emphatically insisted that the request was fake, that he had never requested such information from the US Department of Defense, and that he had never received such a reply from the Pentagon.

Such a denial and denials like it have never convinced Iran’s official media to retract their stories. But there were other pieces of evidence that proved the letter was fake. One was cited [Persian link] by the website Fact Nameh on January 17: “The letter starts by saying that ‘the information below is provided in response to a request in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act,” but that if the US Government wanted to hide casualty numbers it would have classified the information so that it could not be revealed through an FoI request.

Around the same time, the website We Digital Citizens exposed another blunder by the letter forgers. It pointed out that the Pentagon’s official responsible for FoI requests, who was supposed to have answered the congressman’s alleged request, was someone else; the relevant official was named as Lisa Hershman, not James P. Hogan.

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