How serious are Iran’s election interference efforts?

How serious are Iran’s election interference efforts?
Source: Morteza Nikoubazl, Reuters
The most notable instance was a recent voter intimidation campaign aimed at Democratic voters. The intent of the campaign has been debated, but cybersecurity experts agree it marked a new front in the cyberwar on election security.

Since President Donald Trump’s largely unexpected victory in 2016, there has been an ongoing conversation about foreign interference in the United States’ elections. That focus has generally fallen on efforts by Russia, which US intelligence agencies have consistently pinpointed as a main threat. However, in recent weeks attention has turned to other possible adversaries, including Iran.

Prior to now, Iranian efforts to interfere in the 2020 election have not garnered much focus, perhaps because they have been ineffective, so far. The most notable instance was a recent voter intimidation campaign aimed at Democratic voters. The intent of the campaign has been debated, but cybersecurity experts agree it marked a new front in the cyberwar on election security.

The Iranian Proud Boys email

In mid-October, registered Democrats in Florida and Alaska received threatening emails that appeared to be from the Proud Boys, an all-male, far-right group. The emails threatened the recipients, demanding they “vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.” The emails stated the recipients must change their party affiliation to Republican to signal they were going to comply.

On October 21, the day news of the threatening emails spread online, US officials stated the emails were fake and had been sent by Iranians. According to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Iran had obtained voter registration information and used that stolen data to target specific voters. Ratcliffe also said Russia had separately obtained similar information, as it had in 2016.

Ratcliffe claimed Iran’s efforts were “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.” That final assertion by Ratcliffe was met with skepticism from some who questioned how an intimidation campaign telling people to vote for Trump was damaging to the president.

Ratcliffe also recently announced that a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, was not part of a Russian disinformation campaign. Other intelligence agents have questioned Ratcliffe’s assessment in that situation, noting that the FBI investigation is ongoing and could take months to determine the origins of the material.

The Proud Boys, who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists,” have close ties to white supremacists and are often accused of being violent extremists. The group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, who also co-founded VICE in the 1990s before leaving the news agency for other endeavors, insists the Proud Boys are not white supremacists and only resort to violence when provoked.

Tracking Iranian election interference

The intelligence community hasn’t stated whether Iran’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election have been more extensive than this email campaign. However, considering that Iranian hackers were able to obtain voter registration information, it is reasonable to assume this was not – and won’t be – the only attempt.

Reuters reported that the discovery of Iran’s role in the Proud Boys scam was due to a “dumb mistake.” Both government and private investigators were able to track the origin of the emails due to “mistakes made in a video attached to some of the messages.” A government official told Reuters they couldn’t be sure if it was an actual mistake or intentional because the group wanted to be caught.

The Iranian government has denied any involvement in the Proud Boys campaign or the hacking of voter registration information. At this point, the US has yet to determine definitively that the people behind the false emails were working at the direction of Iran’s government, but officials are confident it was Iranian hackers.

Despite this recent effort, The New York Times reports that US intelligence remains more alarmed by Russian election interference efforts. Those efforts include possible interference both in the days immediately leading up to Election Day and in the days to follow, during which time votes will still be being counted in many states due to an influx of mail-in ballots.

After US intelligence concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee separately confirmed that assessment in a five-part, multi-year report. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has routinely denied or downplayed Russia’s election interference efforts and focused on efforts by other countries, such as China.

US relations with Iran

Whether Iran did hack the US or not, there is no question that relations between the two countries are strained. While the US has had conflicts with Iran for decades, this year has seen those tensions ratcheted up after the US military successfully killed Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani in an overnight air raid in January.

Soleimani was one of Iran’s most influential leaders, considered a military hero by some, though the US had officially declared him a supporter of terrorism. The decision by President Trump to assassinate Soleimani was widely touted in the US, especially by members of his party, but there were concerns about potential blowback.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, at the time still campaigning to win the Democratic nomination for president, issued a statement regarding Soleimani’s assassination in which he said, “No American will mourn Qasem Soleimani’s passing.” He warned, though, that Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox” and acknowledged that “Iran will surely respond.”

Indeed, shortly after the air raid, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed revenge for the killing. American citizens who were living in Iran at the time were urged to leave the country as soon as possible. Shortly thereafter, Iran launched missiles at US military bases in the region, which resulted in hundreds of brain injuries among US troops.

After the missile attack, both the US and Iran took steps to deescalate tensions to avoid a war. Nevertheless, the nations have remained at odds.

In September, it was learned that Iran was still planning on avenging the death of Soleimani, possibly through a reciprocal assassination attempt or by an attack on Americans. Trump warned Iran there would be severe consequences if such action did occur. The US has also said it will close its embassy in Baghdad, Iraq if that nation does not help prevent an Iranian attack on US personnel there.

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