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Why’s Iran So Terrible at Lying?

By Taylor Marvin

Ever Friday Political Violence @ a Glancean academic blog by political scientists I edit, solicits readers’ answers about some open question in political violence or international relations. I wrote the question this week: why are Iran’s attempt to fake technical achievements so consistently amateurish?

It’s not the fact that Iran attempts to fake high-profile technical achievements that is surprising: the entire space race between the US and USSR was founded — and, more pertinently, funded — on the national prestige value of technical advancements. Instead, what’s surprising to me is how obviously amateurish these attempts are. For example, what’s the point in showcasing a mockup “stealth fighter” obviously built at, say, 6/8ths scale? There’s little additional cost and technical requirements associated with building a more convincing mockup. Given that these hoaxes are widely mocked in the outside world, either the IRI policymakers responsible for these attempted public relations campaigns consistently overestimate the gullibility of outside observers, or they’re intended purely for internal audiences.

It’s important to note that these exaggerated or fabricated accomplishments aren’t mid-level operations. President Ahmadinejad was present for the recent space monkey showcase — which, at best, involved a botched photo release — indicating that the stunt had the approval of at least some high-level leadership. Even allowing for the possibility that senior IRI decisionmakers are consistently mistaken about how convincing their trumpeted fabrications actually are, it’s still puzzling that leadership in a reasonably-sophisticated state capable of reasonably-complex operations in other spheres would be this incompetent.

That leaves the alternative explanation that these stunts are purely intended for internal audiences, and that policymakers judge their damage to Iran’s external prestige worthwhile. But again, I’m not sure that this strictly makes sense. In the USSR authorities were able to suppress news of space program disasters or setbacks like the 1960 Nedelin catastrophe or failure of the N-1 moon rocket program, and anyway had plenty of genuine high-profile successes to deservedly celebrate. In the modern era information is far more difficult to suppress. It is unreasonable to think that educated Iranians are significantly less likely to spot obvious fabrications like the recently showcased stealth fighter; the Qaher 313’s fakery would be immediately apparent to any enthusiast familiar with images of F-22 or other modern fighters.While these stunts may play well to uneducated or poor audiences, it is likely the regime could devise alternative PR stunts capable of convincing the uneducated while avoiding international mockery.

So does anyone have a better explanation?

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