A clear media divide has emerged in Iran over the war in Ukraine, with some hardliner media repeating Moscow’s propaganda and others trying to reflect reality.
Media affiliated with hardliner factions, including the Revolutionary Guard consistently backed the official government line in the early days of the war, saying the United States and NATO were responsibly by provoking Russia. But the government has not repeated those accusation in recent days.
Mehr news website, however, is notable in parroting pure Russian propaganda. A headline on Thursday said, “Ukrainian Forces Blew Up Mariupol Theater”.
Ukrainian officials and Western correspondents on the ground have reported that a theater in the city where hundreds were seeking refuge from Russian bombardment was targeted and although it was reported on Thursday that many survived, there is no count of how many might have died.
Russia, denying it had carried out a missile or air strike against the building, said Ukrainians blew it up to blame Moscow. Mehr carried the Russian report. The news website is run by the Islamic Propaganda Organization, a state entity financed by the presidential administration but controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office.
Two news websites controlled by the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) keep a lower profile in reporting on Ukraine.
Fars news agency had only one headline about the conflict, hidden well below other items on its website on Thursday., although it had more reporting in the early days of the invasion with an obvious pro-Russia bias. But it also tries to present Russian statements as truth, while presenting Western positions with a shroud of doubt.
The other IRGC flagship news website, Tasnim, maintains a live blog on the conflict with somewhat of a balanced reporting, although avoiding news about Russian attacks on civilians. It covers most diplomatic developments and reflects reports about support for Ukraine.
Kayhan, an ultra-conservative newspaper controlled by Khamenei’s office, strongly backed Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the early days with extensive reports and commentaries. But it has been relatively silent in the past week, perhaps sensing that Russia is stuck in an unwinnable conflict.
Tabnak website, affiliated with one of President Ebrahim Raisi’s deputies, former iRGC commander Mohsen Rezaee, has become much more balanced in its coverage in recent days.
While the hardliner media try to muddle through amid popular support for Ukraine on social media, outlets run by reform minded loyalists approach the conflict in a much more even-handed manner.
Headlines such as “Russia Bombed a Mosque – 79 Children Died” in Aftab News this week, can be observed in some newspapers and websites.
An interesting case is Fararu website, one of the relatively more independent sources given Iran's media restrictions. Fararu, publishes translations of Western press op-eds and analysis on Ukraine, as a clever way to reflect diversity of views and information.
The media divide is also visible on attitudes toward Russia as they relate to Iran and its nuclear negotiations with the West.
After Russia demanded exemption from Ukraine sanctions in its relations with Iran, media with a reformist tilt called Moscow an “obstructionist” who has taken Iran’s nuclear talks with the West hostage. Hardliner media stayed away from criticizing Russia, reflecting government statements seen by many as supportive of Moscow.
Whether the centers of power in the Islamic Republic tolerate the anti-Russian tone of some newspapers and websites, or simply are too busy these days amid nuclear talks and launching ballistic missiles at Iraq, is hard to say.