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POLITICS

The Iranian Connection: How UK coronavirus relief funds made their way from London to Tehran

Over £27,000 in British government grant money has ended up in the hands of an Iranian propaganda network — Tehran-based Press TV — leaked documents analyzed by The Insider show. The funds were distributed as part of a furlough scheme aimed at helping UK workers whose hours had been reduced due the COVID-19 pandemic. Two London production companies that received these grants subsequently transferred funds obtained through the relief program to Press TV. The director of both London production companies’, Mehdi Mirtaleb, has a long history of cooperation with the Iranian outlet, the leaked documents show.

Documents belonging to Iran’s Press TV and obtained by The Insider show that production companies linked to the Iranian propaganda network received over £27,000 in British government grants. The money came from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), a furlough program designed to “protect the UK economy by helping employers whose operations were affected by coronavirus to retain their employees.”

Bank statements seen by The Insider show that money obtained through CJRS grants was transferred to the Tehran-based media outlet via two London companies linked to the channel. Rad Media World LTD and London Broadcasting Partners LTD received the grants in question between June 2020 and March 2021. The money was then used to pay the wages of Press TV contributors and presenters.

The English-language Press TV, which has a London-based bureau, routinely broadcasts Iranian regime propaganda, denies proven atrocities committed by groups friendly to the government of the Islamic Republic, and spreads antisemitic conspiracy theories. It does so mainly via the internet, as its British broadcasting license was revoked in 2012.

Mehdi Mirtaleb, director of the two London-based production companies that redirected over £27,000 in UK grant money to Press TV.
Mehdi Mirtaleb, director of the two London-based production companies that redirected over £27,000 in UK grant money to Press TV.
Photo from Mirtaleb's LinkedIn page

The owner of the production companies that received the grants is Mehdi Mirtaleb, who was described in a 2014 Press TV article as “the Iranian owner of a company that renders media services to Press TV.” (That story described Mirtaleb’s arrest by British police following a complaint made against the channel by Shadi Sadr, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist.)

However, the tranche of data seen by The Insider — corroborated by previous business filings — suggest that Mirtaleb and Press TV have a much closer relationship than the one described in the 2014 article. Mirtaleb was formerly listed as the Secretary of one of Press TV’s now-dissolved British subsidiaries, UK PRESS TV LTD, alongside the channel’s current UK director, Hamid Khairoldin. Companies House, a UK government business registry, still lists Mirtaleb as the director for both Rad Media World LTD and London Broadcasting Partners LTD, the two Press TV-linked companies that received over £27,000 in UK grants.

These latter two companies’ accounts were used to pay the salaries and contributor fees of several Press TV contributors and presenters, whose personal contact details have also been leaked along with the rest of the relevant data. One of the leaked documents shows a contract between Mirtaleb and Press TV worth £150,000 for the production of a series of short documentaries.

A screengrab of PRESS TV’s website from 31 January 2024 features the outlet’s standard mix of pro-Iranian, anti-American, anti-Israeli coverage.
A screengrab of PRESS TV’s website from 31 January 2024 features the outlet’s standard mix of pro-Iranian, anti-American, anti-Israeli coverage.

In response to these allegations, a government spokesperson for His Majesty’s Treasury said “The Job Retention Scheme kept people, families, and businesses afloat during a once-in-a-century pandemic, and millions of jobs would have been lost without it. Only people with British bank accounts were eligible for this scheme and all claims were risk assessed by HMRC.”

This is not the first time information from sensitive Press TV documents has found its way into the public domain. A previous tranche of hacked Press TV data published in February 2022 by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), an Iranian opposition group and quasi-religious cult, show communications between Mirtaleb and Peyman Jebelli, the head of Iran’s IRIB state propaganda network.

In these emails, Mirtaleb appears to be instructing Jebelli on how to circumvent sanctions by sending money through British banks. In one message to Jebelli, Mirtaleb writes: “The only safe way to send money is through banks in London. In this regard, many meetings with money exchange offices were held in London and Tehran, but due to the affiliation of Press TV with Iran, none of them were willing to cooperate with this office.”

Documents also show that a series of large transactions from “food” companies (ROOFOODSS LTD, O KRA EXPRESS 3 LTD and PROTEIN 4 LESS LTD) totalling tens of thousands of pounds were deposited into the bank account of London Broadcasting Partners LTD.

Press TV’s broadcasting license in the UK was revoked by Britain’s broadcasting regulator OFCOM in January 2012 for breaches of the 2003 Communications Act. The channel had previously been fined £100,000 by OFCOM for airing an interview with Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari that turned out to have been filmed under duress, as Bahari was in the custody of Iranian authorities at the time it was recorded.

Press TV is not the only questionable company to have received CJRS funds. Last year it was revealed that a London Islamic center run by a representative of the Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was awarded more than £100,000 in grants through the British government's pandemic-relief furlough scheme.

The tranche of data containing the information outlined above was leaked online by an Iranian anti-regime hacker group known as Black Reward, which posted the documents to its Telegram channel. Black Reward has previously claimed responsibility for several hacker attacks on Iranian government and financial services providers.

Mr. Mirtaleb and Press TV’s London bureau have both been approached for comment.

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