The Department of Treasury has announced it will impose sanctions on Iran for attempting to interfere in the US presidential election after it was found to be behind a fake email campaign targeting Democratic voters.
Officials on Thursday identified five Iranian entities that tried to meddle in the electoral process by spreading misinformation online.
The groups, described as ‘components’ of the Iranian government, posed as news organizations to run disinformation campaigns targeting Americans on social media and other platforms, officials said in a statement.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC-Qods Force, and the Bayan Rasaneh Gostar Institute, were named as the key players in the foreign interference campaign.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the White House is prepared to take action on foreign actors that attempt to meddle in US elections after imposing sanctions on five Iranian organizations on Thursday
The foreign interference campaign comes just two weeks before Americans are due to elect their next president
The Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union and the International Union of Virtual Media, which are controlled by the IRGC-QF, were also sanctioned.
The groups attempted ‘to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters,’ the Treasury Department said.
‘As a result of today’s designations, all property and interests in property of the persons designated today subject to US jurisdiction are blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.
The sanction also extends to groups ’50 per cent or more owned’ by those organizations.
The IRGC, a branch of the Iranian military, as well as the Qods Force, have been designated under multiple authorities since 2007.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Qods Force were identified as key players in the foreign interference campaign
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in January, had been designated as a terrorist in the US
Officials said the IRGC had used Bayan Gostar as a ‘front company’ in its propaganda efforts.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Bayan Gostar personnel planned to exploit social issues including the COVID-19 pandemic, and denigrate US political figures in an attempt to influence the public.
Officials said Bayan Gostar was gearing up to execute a ‘series of influence operations’ as recently as this summer but they did not specify what those efforts entailed.
The Iranian media outlets involved were also found to have ‘amplified false narratives in English’ and posted conspiracy theories and disinformation related to the pandemic.
Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday said the Trump administration ‘is committed to ensuring the integrity of the US election system and will continue to counter efforts from any foreign actor that threatens our electoral processes.’
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, denied Tehran’s involvement on Twitter on Wednesday
Separate to election interference claims, the US on Thursday also blacklisted Iraj Masjedi, Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq, saying he has for years overseen the training and support of Iraqi militia groups, including the IRGC-QF, which are responsible for attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq.
‘The IRGC-QF continues to exploit Iraq to pursue its interests at the expense of the Iraqis. Today, the US designated a senior IRGC-QF official, Iraj Masjedi, who serves as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq. He has directed the group’s activities for years, threatening Iraqi stability,’ Secretary Mike Pompeo said on Twitter.
The sanctions come after intelligence officials identified Iran as one of two foreign actors that had taken actions to influence public opinion relating to the election.
The activities attributed to Iran would mark a significant escalation for a country some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage.
Tensions have risen between Iran and the US since 2018, when Trump exited Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal and stepped up sanctions on Tehran.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Wednesday confirmed both Iran and Russia had separately obtained US voter registration information.
Secretary Mike Pompeo also confirmed the US has sanctioned Iraj Masjedi, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, saying he has for years overseen the training and support of Iraqi militia groups, including the IRGC-QF, that have threatened Iraqi stability
Iran however, was found to have used the information to orchestrate an interference campaign that involved sending out threatening emails to registered Democrats and distributing videos encouraging Americans to cast fraudulent ballots.
Ratcliffe did not describe the emails in Wednesday’s news conference but officials familiar with the matter said the US linked Tehran to messages sent to Democrats in at least four states, including battleground locations like Pennsylvania and Florida.
The emails claimed to be from far-right group the Proud Boys threatening to ‘come after’ Democrats if they did not vote for Trump.
The emails were reported by residents in Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania – all of which are highly contested states for the election with the exception of Alaska.
‘(Insert name) we are in possession of all of your information,’ the emails stated. ‘You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access to the entire voting infrastructure.
Earlier this week, registered Democrats in Alaska, Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania received emails claiming to come from far-right group Proud Boys threatening to ‘come after’ them if they did not vote for Trump
In a last-minute press conference Wednesday evening, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe confirmed Russia and Iran have obtained and used voter registration to spread false information to American voters
‘You will vote for Trump or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.’
Ratcliffe did not elaborate on how they were intended to ‘damage’ President Trump but one possibility is the messages may have been intended to align the president in the minds of voters with the Proud Boys after he was criticized for failing to unequivocally denounce the group.
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, has denied Tehran’s involvement.
‘Unlike the US, Iran does not interfere in other country’s elections,’ Miryousefi wrote on Twitter Wednesday night.
‘The world has been witnessing US own desperate public attempts to question the outcome of its own elections at the highest level.’
The Kremlin also denied the allegation.
‘Such accusations appear every day, they are unfounded and not based on anything,’ said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The announcement at a rare news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the US government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.