By Derek Davison (source: LobeLog)
Considerable evidence emerged late this week connecting the U.S. State Department to a Twitter account that has engaged in online attacks against human rights organizations, Iranian-American activists, journalists, and others advocating against the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran. The revelation is raising questions about whether the Trump administration is using federal funds to propagandize in favor of a potential Iran war.
In the past 16 months, thousands of protestors have been arrested in #Iran, and most are anonymous. @sepehrifar of @hrw, a supporter of so-called Moderates within the regime, instead of documenting+proving these human rights violations, is working hard to prove @JZarif's claims. https://t.co/CvWzqULihT— IranDisinfo (@IranDisinfo) April 25, 2019
The story began to develop on Thursday, when Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch's executive director for the Middle East and North Africa, flagged a tweet made last month by the "Iran Disinformation Project" (@IranDisinfo):
"This is a US State Department funded account," Whitson tweeted. Journalist Negar Mortazavi followed up, tweeting, "so the State Department uses taxpayer money to fund online attacks on HRW because the organization is researching the human cost of US sanctions in Iran. Is this even legal?"
That the "Iran Disinformation Project" is State Department-funded is unquestionably true. The organization's own "About Us" webpage reads as follows (emphasis added):
Iran Disinformation Project exposes and counters the nefarious influence of one of the world's few remaining totalitarian regimes. Daily in Persian, Arabic and English languages, the initiative brings to light disinformation emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran via official rhetoric, state propaganda outlets, social media manipulation and more.
We provide near real time counter narratives and truth telling through our social networks as well as longer, investigative reports. Iran Disinformation Project's documentaries and other video productions, profiles of disinformation nodes and personalities, translations of scholarly works on disinformation and more provide to Iranian, Arab and international audiences an educative perspective on how Ayatollah Khamenei's theocracy ensures regime survival not only through aggression but also through the soft power of its lies about itself, about Iran and about our world. The regime's external terror, imperial wars and financial power are a focus, as are its internal repression, corruption and incompetence. Throughout our work, we amplify the voices and civic actions of courageous Iranians who reveal the regime for the evil it truly is.
Iran Disinformation Project was launched in late 2018 and is funded by the US Department of State's Global Engagement Center.
The target of the project's April tweet, HRW researcher Tara Sepehri Far, expressed some dismay that the Iran Disinformation Project's attack on her was at least in part financed with taxpayer money:
Many of us accepted that toxic slandering is part of the cost of being an analyst or doing human rights work in a very polarized climate of the US government's maximum pressure campaign, but now we realize that part of the slandering is actually being funded by US taxpayers. https://t.co/nIwINQXnLd— Tara Sepehri Far (@sepehrifar) May 31, 2019
By late Friday, presumably embarrassed by the attention the Iran Disinformation Project was suddenly attracting, the State Department suspended its funding. NPR journalist Michele Keleman reported that the department is requiring "the implementer" to take "necessary steps to ensure that any future activity remains within the agreed scope of work." But questions remain. What is that "agreed scope of work"? Who is "the implementer" behind the project? How long has the State Department been aware that the project was using public funds to attack, repeatedly, journalists and human rights activists for propagandistic purposes? And perhaps most importantly, did anyone in the Trump administration direct the project to conduct those attacks?
Well that was an efficient outcome. Investigation should also identify coordination of @IranDisinfo with State and other organizations to attack #Iran human rights activists and groups. https://t.co/a5orNNufW1— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) May 31, 2019
So far, the State Department has offered no clarification about its relationship with the Iran Disinformation Project or the type of work it had been funding the project to carry out. But evidence has surfaced suggesting it may be linked to one of the most prominent Iran hawk think tanks in Washington. As highlightedby LobeLog contributing editor Eli Clifton, one of the project's main researchers appears to be Saeed Ghasseminejad, the "Senior Iran and Financial Economics Advisor" at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). His writings for the project are featured on FDD's website. FDD's role in shaping the debate on Iran in DC and in hyping concerns about Iran in the mainstream press is clear, as is its institutional preference for a U.S.-Iran military conflict. Its close ties to the Trump administration are similarly well-attested.
Multiple sources tell me that this person from @FDD is also running @IranDisinfo. It is interesting that he writes reports for the project and it is then promoted by FDD.— Negar Mortazavi (@NegarMortazavi) May 31, 2019
Saeed is well known for his hawkish views and for constantly attacking and smearing diaspora Iranians. pic.twitter.com/r2ysWnGNrq
Additional evidence appears to show that the Iran Disinformation Project is being operated in connection with Tavaana, an organization established in 2010, using State Department seed money, to help build Iranian civil society primarily using distance learning technologies. Tavaana's co-founder, Mariam Memarsadeghi, highlights an unspecified connection to the Iran Disinformation Project in her Twitter bio.
Tavaana is heavily involved in the @IranDisinfo site that has slandered U.S. journalists, experts and advocates w/ State Dept funding. Their co-founder @memarsadeghi lists IranDisinfo on her Twitter bio. There are several other ties outlined here: https://t.co/OpmDx5oyI0 pic.twitter.com/BiphFTpgwE— Ryan Costello (@RN_Costello) May 31, 2019
Without more information on the intended scope of the Iran Disinformation Project's work, it is impossible to say whether its State Department funding was legally (or ethically) justifiable. But as former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Joel Rubin noted, "We American taxpayers don't fund our government to attack our fellow citizens. If there was any direction given by State Dept officials to the grantee - which Americans to target, what message to use or even just a nod of approval - then we have a scandal."
Is the Trump administration funneling public funds to organizations dedicated to regime change in Tehran? Are those organizations using those funds to impugn their ideological adversaries online? Has anybody in the Trump administration directed those organizations to undertake such attacks? Given that the funds in question are public, the State Department owes U.S. taxpayers a fuller explanation as to how their money is being spent.
About the Author:
Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.
... Payvand News - 06/01/19 ... --