Iran has launched a sophisticated smear campaign against the UN special rapporteur investigating its human rights violations by widely spreading a fabricated WikiLeaks cable purporting to show he received bribes from Saudi Arabia.
In a concerted effort aimed at discrediting Ahmed Shaheed in the eyes of the general public, Iranian state-run agencies and semi-official websites simultaneously carried articles claiming that the Saudi embassy in Kuwait had paid the UN envoy $1m to take an anti-Iran position. It dominated many Iranian front pages on Tuesday and an Iranian official later used the false information to question Shaheed’s credibility.
The allegations are based on what is claimed to be a WikiLeaks cable the authenticity of which has been challenged by the organisation itself. “Please show which cable this claim is based on. You fail to link to one of our cables in the article,” the official account of the WikiLeaks tweeted in response to a website carrying the news. Shaheed has also strongly denied the claims.
A deeper examination of the forged document when compared with genuine Saudi cables published on the WikiLeaks website showed that it had been fabricated with help from a computer technique to merge two sets of different real diplomatic Saudi letterheads and creating an entirely new letterhead which does not exist elsewhere. It was then put on alwaienews.com and awdnews.com, two amateur websites that duplicate materials from other sources.
The apparently orchestrated campaign against Shaheed seems to fit into a familiar pattern of Iran smearing activists, dissidents, or even journalists by propagating misinformation about them. In a similar tactic used in 2013, a number of staff members at the BBC’s Persian service, which is loathed by the Iranian establishment, were falsely accused of sexual misconduct and were the victims of online identity theft designed to discredit them.