U.S. soldiers stand amid damage at a site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad air base, in Anbar, Iraq, Jan. 13, 2020.
U.S. soldiers stand amid damage at a site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad air base, in Anbar, Iraq, Jan. 13, 2020.

Iranian state TV has broadcast what appears to be a prank call to a U.S. television network to try to support false Iranian claims of heavy U.S. casualties in an Iranian missile attack on an Iraqi base last week.  

Several Iranian diaspora journalists tweeted a video clip of Thursday’s broadcast by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) TV channel, whose presenter, Ali Zohourian, introduced a segment about Washington’s purported “cover-up of heavy losses” from Iran’s January 8 strike on the al-Asad base that houses U.S. and Iraqi forces.  

No U.S. or Iraqi forces were killed in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) missile attack, which caused some damage to the base.  

Iraq's prime minister said Iran had given him advance notice of the strike. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said they were unaware of any Iraqi notice about the coming attack and credited the U.S. military’s early warning system for enabling American troops to take cover beforehand.

In the IRIB news segment, Zohourian said: “Eight days after the IRGC’s missile slap on the (face of) the United States war machine, a father of a terrorist soldier of America admits in a telephone interview with (C-SPAN’s) Washington Journal (program) that he has no information about his son’s whereabouts since last week, and says his numerous pursuits of U.S. Defense Department officials bore no fruit.”

Maziar Bahari, a journalist with the IranWire news site, was the first to tweet in English and share a clip of the IRIB news segment featuring an excerpt of U.S. TV network C-SPAN’s Washington Journal show. Bahari noted that the man who called in to the C-SPAN show, claiming to be the father of a U.S. soldier who was at the al-Asad base when Iran attacked it, had a heavy Iranian accent and appeared to be pretending to cry. 

“I don’t know if he is alive or he is dead,” the caller said in reference to his purported son, before cursing U.S. President Donald Trump.

Several other Iranian diaspora journalists shared Bahari’s assessment that the phone call to C-SPAN was bogus, including Hadi Nili of BBC Persian and Shayan Sardarizadeh of the BBC Monitoring service.

The apparent prank call by the man who gave his name as Allan was made to the Wednesday edition of the Washington Journal program hosted by U.S. journalist Greta Brawner.  

After listening to the call, Brawner offered sympathy to the man, saying, “Allan, I'm so sorry for you, for what’s happening with your family, not knowing what’s happening to your son,” before pivoting to another topic.  

“We do not and cannot fact-check each call or assess its legitimacy,” C-SPAN spokesman Howard Mortman told VOA Persian, in reference to calls made to Washington Journal’s “Open Phones” segment.  

He declined a direct response to the use of the C-SPAN content in an Iranian state TV news report promoting false claims of U.S. casualties in Iraq.  

In a phone interview with VOA Persian, BBC Monitoring journalist Sardarizadeh said Iranian state media outlets, including Fars, Tasnim and Khabar Online, had published a series of unsubstantiated claims of dozens to hundreds of U.S. troops being killed in the al-Asad base attack. He said the reports cited “informed IRGC sources,” who purportedly received the information from other sources in Iraq.

In one example of such reporting, IRIB TV journalist Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour tweeted the following message on January 9, a day after the Iranian missile strike: “Trump’s biggest challenge these days: hiding the bodies of U.S. troops. 270 dead... #Vengeance”.

At the same time that it was disseminating false reports of U.S. casualties, IRIB also echoed the Iranian government’s initial denials that it had any direct role in the January 8 crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet shortly after it took off from Tehran. For three days after the crash, it reported Iranian officials’ claims that mechanical problems likely caused the crash, until the government made a Saturday acknowledgement that Iranian forces shot down the plane, mistaking it for an enemy threat.  

The Iranian acknowledgement followed days of Western media reports citing Western intelligence agencies and officials as saying there was evidence of Iranian missile fire bringing down the plane.

IRIB’s broadcasting of the government’s initial denials of responsibility for the plane crash, which killed all 176 people on board, has drawn criticism from other members of Iran’s state-approved media and from university students who held anti-government rallies in Tehran and other cities in the past week.  

A Monday statement published by the Tehran Province Journalists Association said: “The publication of false information has had a severe impact on public confidence and public opinion, and more than ever shook the media’s shaky position … IRIB television employees acknowledge that their credibility has been lost. It should be noted that other media outlets objected to the situation, but IRIB television (management) favored it. This incident showed that people cannot trust official data and journalists should try to fill this gap as much as possible.”

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In a Tuesday protest at Tehran University, students assembled near the university’s medical school chanted, “Our state television is our disgrace.”

Asked why IRIB broadcasted an apparently prank call to C-SPAN to support false claims of U.S. casualties after facing domestic criticism for its reporting of erroneous government denials of responsibility for the Ukrainian plane crash, Sardarizadeh, a former IRIB journalist, said the network’s management is beholden to Iran’s Islamist rulers.  

“IRIB is so strategically important to the central message that the rulers in Tehran want to get out to their people, and the managers who run IRIB’s news department are so close to the establishment and trusted by them, that they don’t even care that what they are saying is ridiculous,” Sardarizadeh said. 

“They believe they are in the front line of an onslaught against the Islamic Republic,” he added.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Mehdi Jedinia of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk contributed.