Secretary Pompeo’s meeting with Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, 2019. Public domain

In the past year, an Iranian American journalist and women’s rights activist has captured the hearts and minds of the American public. Her name is Masih Alinejad, and she has a knack for addressing audiences on television and social media with fierce conviction, presenting herself as the arch-enemy of the Islamic Republic, one who will stop at nothing to bring down an oppressive Islamic regime. For over eight years she has waged a campaign against compulsory hijab in Iran, becoming an icon for many liberals and progressives in the Western world as the representative for an otherwise massive, diffuse, and grassroots Iranian women’s movement. Self-described in The New Yorker as be “leading this movement,” she has been nominated for a Noble Peace Prize in 2022, and was named one of Time magazine’s 12 “Women of the Year” in 2023. Most recently, she received an honorary degree from The New School.

Who is Masih Alinejad, and how did she rise to such a position of power and influence in the United States?

Alinejad began her career as a reformist parliamentary journalist inside Iran in 2001 under the Khatami government. After she lost official support of the government for exposing a bonus scandal during the first term of the harder-line Ahmadinejad presidency, she immigrated to England in 2009, where she worked for various Persian language media outlets in the UK, funded by Western governments, with a small reach within diaspora communities.

In the summer of 2015, she signed a contract with the U.S. Agency for Global Media–funded Voice of America (VOA) Persian television network to host her own show. It was only after this move, in 2016, that she began to attend high-level public events within the English-speaking world, appearing at the right-leaning Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London, and the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. She was photogenic and a fiery advocate, with a cragged beauty, punctuated by a white plumeria flower neatly arranged in her otherwise unruly head of curly hair. Soon enough, U.S. mainstream media outlets—including Fox News, CNN, CBS, and NPR—were booking her as the exiled voice of the Iranian women’s movement against the Islamic regime.

At the same time, she was starting to meet important people in high places. One of them was General David Petraeus, the former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who she seems to have first encountered at an Aspen Institute conference entitled “Assessing U.S. Interest and Strategy in an Unraveling Middle East.” At the time, General Petraeus was warning the U.S. public that “the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability” wasn’t ISIL but militias “guided by” Iran—and that the war that might bring the Islamic Republic to heel would be a war of ideas. “The ongoing struggles are generally not clashes between civilizations,” Petraeus argued, rejecting a worldview that had been embraced by the Bush administration. “Rather, what we are seeing is more accurately a clash within a civilization, that of the Islamic world,” writes Petraeus, signaling that long-term United States “leadership” in the region need not involve U.S. occupation forces.  This piece was republished in the Aspen Institute’s congressional program alongside Alinejad’s “Calling on Women Leaders.”

Alinejad was a media savvy agitator who seemed perfectly suited to lead “a clash within a civilization,” by relentlessly denouncing the “gender apartheid” of Iran’s Islamic Republic. And during the Trump presidency with the Voice of America Persian programming contracted to Nick Muzin, a Trump loyalist, the influence of Alinejad only grew as she aligned her narratives of Iranian politics with policies of the Trump government.

Not everyone in the Iranian diaspora in America was happy to have her elevated in this way as a quasi-official U.S. government spokesperson. In 2019, after Alinejad met with Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State and the architect of a “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, over one thousand independent Iranian dissidents and feminist activists denounced her as an “opportunistic activist” and demanded that she disclose the nature of that meeting.

Meanwhile, Alinejad’s television show Tablet began to adapt more direct attacks against the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards into soundbites that could be weaponized on social media.

After the Trump administration used a drone to kill Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani in 2020, Alinejad made the rounds of the U.S. mainstream media to defend this extrajudicial killing, without disclosing that she was an employee of a U.S federal government agency. In between her media hits, she remained in close contact with military leaders and strategic think tanks, attending both the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX) in 2022 and the Munich Security Conference (MSC) this year.  In these settings, her language is carefully crafted: “We the people of Iran don’t want you to save us, we want you to stop saving our murderous regime,” she repeats at every opportunity she gets.

But how are Western governments “saving the regime”? Supposedly, by negotiating a nuclear deal that should alleviate the devastating sanctions on the people of Iran. But, she insists, they must sanction the government of Iran and “not the people of Iran.” Is she suggesting that the United States immediately lift all the sanctions affecting Iranian citizens? Hardly.

What she proposes are more sanctions, this time targeting “government officials.” The plan would add to the wreckage of a 17-year sanctions regime that has only made the Iranian regime stronger and more authoritarian across the region, while turning the people of Iran destitute. Alinejad’s VOA show, along with the rest of the network’s programming, continuously points out that it is the Islamic Republic’s corruption, not the sanctions, that is hurting the Iranian people. Yes, with the help of the sanctions civilian trade was eliminated from the international market, and the Revolutionary Guards monopolized more and more of the country’s economy, creating their exclusive hyper-inflationary black markets and driving down wages. Economic sanctions seem to be less about weakening the Iranian government than about “securing the human terrain,” to borrow General Petraeus’s words, with the help of the ideological apparatus of the Voice of America.

By 2021, she had taken on a new and very potent role, that of a martyr: the U.S. Justice Department had charged Iranian intelligence operatives with an alleged plot to kidnap Alinejad. After the charges were announced, Alinejad was defiant: “I’m not scared,” she told the Associated Press. “I want to tell you that the Iranian regime thinks by trying to kill me, they will silence me, or silence other women. But they only strengthen me, make me more powerful to fight for democracy and give voice to brave women who are facing guns and bullet in the streets to get rid of the Islamic Republic.” Significant questions have been raised on the plausibility of such a plot, given its remarkably amateur plan. The case has not yet been resolved.

In 1953, when the CIA and the British Intelligence staged a coup in Tehran, they did so through a muscular, dark-bearded thuggish figure named Sha’ban Ja’fari, who went by the street name Shabun Bi-Mokh, meaning “Shaban the mindless.” His task was to bully people to attend demonstrations against Mossadegh in the streets of Tehran. Some 50 years after this coup, a suit-and-tie-wearing, clean-shaven Ahmad Chalabi made it his mission to present his rational arguments in paper after paper on the evils of Saddam and the necessity of U.S. intervention in Iraq. In this series of events, we can see the evolution of the mouthpiece for the “war of ideas.” Today, the U.S. public has run out of patience with the more masculinist forms of intervention such as coups and military deployments. Today, a potential civil war in Iran, otherwise read as a “clash within a civilization” is to be normalized as “leadership” in the women’s revolution, carefully curated in the security conferences and strategic think-tanks of the global North.

Today, the face of this war machine is a petite woman who has mastered the new image of the American savior, and she wears a flower in her hair.

Setareh Shohadaei is a postdoctoral faculty fellow researching identity politics at the Department of Liberal Studies at New York University.