‘Tehran can’t handle four more years of maximum pressure’: Expert weighs in on Iran’s election interference
October 22, 2020
The pair revealed that Iran was working a disinformation campaign against the upcoming presidential election. Tehran allegedly sent emails that appeared to be sent by the group the “Proud Boys,” across the country. The controversial group has been called out as extremists by opponents during the civil unrest leading up to the election.
Ratcliffe and Wray said that Iran reportedly obtained voter information of registered Democrats and asked them to vote for President Trump. The email also asked them to switch their party affiliation to Republican with threatening messages.
“In short, Iran is stepping up its activities in the information warfare and cyber domain. I particularly believe these stories to be true,” Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Behnam Ben Taleblu told this reporter in an exclusive interview Thursday. “Our authoritarian adversaries be they Iran, Russia, China, even North Korea are looking to divide Americans against each other and really looking to inject discord into our political systems close to our election.”
Ben Taleblu added, “You know, I’ve watched very slowly Iran evolve in the quality of its analysis about our domestic politics over the past decade, particularly as our domestic politics have become more divisive and more public.”
“So, in this sense, I echo the finding of William Evanina, the NCSC official who earlier this August said that Iran doesn’t want to see a continuation of the maximum pressure policy and is looking to turn Americans against their own democratic institutions and thwart the election chances of President Trump to that effect which is what I believe he said back in August,” Taleblu said.
On Wednesday night, the revelation of emails quickly turned into a partisan issue. And it even led to Democrats on a Congressional committee calling the Director of National Intelligence a “partisan hack.”
They later deleted the tweet and issued a clarification.
Iran is seizing on existing divisions in America
Iran is seizing on existing divisions in America to sew even more division between opposing parties and ideologies that exist in the country. The regime did just that with the emails while also continuing to peddle conspiracy theories and spread disinformation on social media.
“This is another way to inject hatred and discord into this political system,” Ben Taleblu said, adding that Iran wants to “divide Americans against each other.”
“I think ultimately from a policy perspective, Tehran can’t handle four more years of maximum pressure,” he said. “But, in the immediate term, what they aim to do is exactly what you’re seeing in the national media, which is people taking sides over an intelligence finding which should be nonpartisan.”
Iran’s efforts on the cyber front, using tools on social media to send messages, could also sway the results of the November election or at least make Americans question the integrity of the American democratic process. And Ben Taleblu said Thursday night’s debate and the previous debate are great opportunities for that and that social media sites are a new virtual battlefield for Iran to fight against America.
“What we’re seeing in cyberspace by Iran right now and also in social media by Iran right now is really in many ways an emulation of their highly successful proxy strategy that we’ve seen in the Middle East for so long,” he said.
“That strategy is to still strike, to still land blows, but to do so from a distance and to do so while masking or disguising its hand. So, we know in Iraq they have the Shia militia, in Lebanon, they have Lebanese Hezbollah,” he said. “Here, right now, what Iran has done in the past two years is amplify false narratives, use bots, impersonate accounts, spoof accounts on social media platforms that are quite diverse platforms, like Twitter, for instance, to inject their kind of vitriol and sense and suss out our partisan cleavages which could lead ultimately to an accommodationist policy towards Iran.”
Iran, like Russia, can benefit from the chaos
Iran, like Russia has in the past, saw an already divided America and saw it as the perfect opportunity to strike. The reaction by public officials and Twitter debates that immediately followed the DNI’s announcement showed just that. The effort by Iran has been ongoing, however. In fact, in recent months, Iran has already used the tragic killing of George Floyd and the subsequent riots and protests to present America as an unstable power to the world .
“Now, again, sort of like Russia, they benefit from this immediate chaos and you know authoritarian adversaries have a long history of being able to actually point at U.S. domestic issues whether real or perceived and try to use them against America, which they actually see as the democracy being a tool in our national security arsenal to promote. Key point, important example, during our own civil rights movement here in the 1960s, the Soviet Union often pointed to that as proof America was an imperial, racist power to thwart America’s foreign policy goals abroad. Lest we forget, last month at the UNGA Iran fully cognizant of the eruption of social protests and unrest over George Floyd and the BLM movement, likened Iran and other nations to George Floyd’s suffering, something which is reprehensible because Iran habitually actually kills its own citizens, ethnic minorities and engages in sham trials, in show trials and as of last November and we’re coming up on the one year anniversary of this, Iran violently suppressed protests touched off by change in oil subsidies.”
“So, really, Iran should not be talking about this, Iran definitely feels comfortable living in a glass house and throwing stones. More importantly, as they see Americans more willing to put party or particular ideology over country, they’re going to suss out those things so too will their partners, which are Russia and China, countries the U.S. has great competition with. So, I would caution anyone, be they analysts, lay voters, U.S. government officials, elected officials, company executives, tech companies to be very very careful moving ahead…”
“This evening, October 22, there’s gonna be another presidential debate. If you remember the last one, just a few weeks ago, Twitter had to remove I think the press had reported up to 130 accounts tied to Iran that were aimed at inhibiting public discourse or hurting the public debate related to a presidential debate. I’m sure they’re going to be trying to do the same thing again this evening and throughout what’s left of our election cycle.”
Tougher Sanctions On Iran
The Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy has been successful in straining Iran’s nefarious operations and has proven even more effective than a decade of multilateral sanctions, which is something Iranian officials have admitted to time and time again, Ben Taleblu told me.
“With the U.S. restoring those tough sanctions that you mentioned and consistently adding to them for the period of mid-2018 to mid-2019 that got Tehran to change course,” Ben Taleblu emphasized. “Tehran realized that American unilateral sanctions have been actually tougher in record time than a decade of multilateral sanctions. So that has led to Tehran to engage in the escalation that we saw last summer.”
“So, Iran is trying to get the U.S. to swerve but it’s trying to get the U.S. to swerve in a way that doesn’t invite massive retaliation and the kind of information warfare and cyber hacking and cyber espionage and cyber-enabled economic warfare that Tehran has been engaging in is totally consistent with that policy of striking blows, isolating yourself, and trying to get your adversary not to respond. So Iran wants America to absorb, not only all this escalation but to absorb these blows it’s trying to land in our own social media platforms and against our election.”
He continued, “Last year, in 2019, four times Iranian officials compared the American sanctions policy under Trump to being more devastating than that bloody eight-year war. But, if that bloody eight-year war got Iran to change course, then how come these sanctions, which don’t require the U.S. to fire a single shot, aren’t a good enough foreign policy tool to get Iran to change course. With immense respect to the former Vice President and the Presidential contender Joe Biden, I think that it’s a bit naive to say that if Iran comes back into compliance, then we’ll come into compliance. Because the question is what tool will Washington use if war is off the table, if sanctions relief that is premature pallets of cash like you’re predecessor is a bad idea is off the table and sanctions are off the table. How are you going to get Iran to change course?”