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October 23, 2020

Middle East Roundup: Iran Accused of Election Interference & Iran’s Cyber Capabilities

This week, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Ratcliffe accused Iran of interfering in the 2020 election. Also, an overview of Iran’s cyber capabilities and motives. Please see a breakdown and analysis of these events below: 

Iran Accused of Election Interference by DNI Ratcliffe

  • Questions Remain Concerning Validity of DNI’s Claims
    • In a press conference on Wed. night, Oct. 21st, the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, accused Iran of a campaign to intimidate American voters in over three states. According to the allegations, Iran posed as the far-right white nationalist group The Proud Boys and warned voters “you will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.” DNI Ratcliffe, in turn, has alleged three goals for the operation, “to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.”
    • A second video, in turn, was allegedly posted to social media claiming fraudulent vote totals from overseas. The video cited by Ratcliffe as evidence of Iranian interference “shows Trump making disparaging comments about mail-in voting, followed by a logo with the name of the Proud Boys.”

    • Hard evidence of Iran’s role is sparse, but a recent Reuter’s article citing intelligence sources and analysts from private firms suggested that a “dumb mistake” from the hackers allowed officials to quickly attribute the emails to Iranian sources. According to the cybersecurity company CrowdStrike, it was this mistake that allowed government officials to publicly address the issue so quickly. 
    • Another U.S. government source speaking to the New York Times asserted that “the threat of Iranian interference was real and troubling…but there was little doubt that Russia remained a greater threat and questioned why the focus was on Iran on Wednesday night.” 
    • Ratcliffe also made assertions about potential Iranian intentions, but Wall Street Journal cited two U.S. officials who said that Ratcliffe “made an analytical leap saying Proud Boys email spoofing was intended to harm Trump,” instead saying that “it was aimed at undermining public confidence.”

    • In response, the spokesman for Iran’s mission at the United Nations said, “Unlike the U.S., Iran does not interfere in other country’s elections…These accusations are nothing more than another scenario to undermine voter confidence in the security of the U.S. election, and are absurd.”

  • Iran’s Cyber Security Capabilities Growing, But Far Outmatched by Russia and China

    • For years now, Iran has been growing its cyber capabilities ranging from hackings, disruption efforts, and disinformation campaigns. Iran’s cyber capabilities have developed into yet another tool in their asymmetric strategy toolkit against the U.S. and its partners, especially following the re-imposition of sanctions in 2018. Similar to its support for its regional partners, it can develop and deploy cyber capabilities relatively cheaply, with large effect, and potential deniability. 
    • Moreover, these capabilities allow Iran to counter western soft power in ways they couldn’t before. After the 2009 Green Movement swept through Iran, security forces saw the power of social media and began to develop ways not only to contain the threat it posed to the Islamic Republic, but how to weaponize it.

    • Iran attempts to achieve these aims by exacerbating divisions within American society that have grown in the last few years. Iranian disinformation campaigns, including bots, fake accounts, and inauthentic news websites have attempted to influence the debate on social media on a range of issues, including on the hearings of the-Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh or the divide between Bernie Sanders supporters and more establishment Democrat proponents. 
    • However, despite the administration’s attempts at creating an equivalency between Iran and Russia’s capabilities in cyberspace, a comprehensive report on Iran’s disinformation efforts by Ariane Tabatabai argues otherwise. In reference to Iran’s capabilities in comparison to world powers, “…though Iran’s growing efforts to undermine democracy should not be ignored and should be addressed adequately, for now, the Islamic Republic remains a lesser threat than China and Russia.”

    • Similar to Russia, many of Iran’s disinformation campaigns are designed to undermine more legitimate democratic institutions in an attempt to stave off criticism of the Islamic Republic’s performance at home. In sowing chaos and undermining U.S. elections, Iran is better able to deflect blame from its own governance while at the same time retaliating against long standing U.S. sanctions and covert operations against Iran. 

    • Despite cyber’s growing role in Iran’s security strategy, Iran’s cyber capabilities remain fairly limited due to intra-system competition, a lack of funding, lack of knowledge sharing with more capable countries, and competing priorities.

    • All in all, following the announcement on Wednesday, former and current U.S. officials are far more concerned about Russia’s election interference efforts in the closing days of the election. One official went so far as to compare “the Iranian action as single-A baseball, while the Russians are major leaguers.”
  • Key Takeaways
    • As evidence seems to mount of Iran’s role in the emails, Ratcliffe’s unsubstantiated claims that Iran’s efforts were intended to “damage President Trump” appear to politicize a serious national security issue – underscoring the need for an impartial and full accounting of the claims. A more likely aim for Iran would be to stoke chaos and undermine faith in the democratic process.

    • In addition, Iran is not a monolith and its many political factions view the U.S. through a variety of lenses. Many Iranian officials – particularly many hardliners who are in charge of their cyber espionage operations – see no difference between Democrats and Republicans, each of whom has led punishing sanctions and sabotage campaigns against Iran in the past. Many of these factions in Iran have issues with the U.S. system as a whole, and not specific candidates or parties. 
    • Moreover, the New York Times in August asserted that Iran’s main power brokers scrapped a plan to “deliver an election season surprise this fall” that may have included similar provocations in the Gulf that occurred in 2019. They have allegedly since abandoned those plans for fear that they could help President Trump’s election campaign. However, while Iran set aside kinetic action, cyber activities give Iran the ability to maintain plausible deniability. Iran may not be seeking to spark a conflict with the U.S., but it does wish to undermine the U.S. in a variety of retaliatory ways.

    • Ratcliffe and the administration also have a history of elevating threats from Iran and China on par with Russia, despite overwhelming evidence to suggest that Russia’s campaign is not only more sophisticated, but more sustained. While any election interference should be called out and addressed, creating a false equivalency between Iranian and Russian capabilities distorts the facts for potential political gain. 
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