There has been a nasty ongoing smear campaign directed against Iranian and Iranian-American journalists, academics, and activists because they have criticized administration policy and because they don’t echo hawkish talking points on Iran. It recently came to light that part of this campaign was receiving U.S. government funding that was supposed to be used to combat propaganda from foreign governments. Thanks to public exposure and pressure on the State Department, that funding has been suspended:
The US state department has cut off funding to a group that purported to combat Iranian propaganda, after it was found to be trolling US journalists, human rights activists and academics it deemed to be insufficiently hostile to the government in Tehran.
The Iran Disinformation Project was funded by the state department’s global engagement centre which was created to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. In recent weeks however, the group’s Twitter account @IranDisinfo targeted BBC journalists, thinktank experts and civil society advocates, denouncing them as being “mouthpieces” and supporters of the Iranian government.
In one case they singled out a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), Tara Sepehri Far, because she had looked into the human rights impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranians.
The group also focused on supporters of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Donald Trump withdrew from last year, particularly the National Iranian American Council, which has advocated nuclear diplomacy with Tehran. It used the hashtag #NIACLobbies4Mullahs.
It is good that the U.S. government will no longer be funding propaganda efforts that attack its own citizens for doing their jobs and expressing political views that put them at odds with the current administration, but it is outrageous that the government was supporting something like this in the first place. The targeting of Iranian-American journalists and academics by this campaign is particularly disturbing, since many of them same people that the so-called Iran Disinformation Project was attacking have also been subject to harassment and smears from the Iranian government. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and other critics of the administration’s Iran policy, it should be unacceptable to throw around false accusations that they are lobbying on behalf of a government that they clearly oppose. It is nothing new for Iran hawks to defame their opponents by falsely accusing them of working for the regime in Tehran, but the use of public funds to aid in that dishonest smear campaign is a new and worrying development.
The AP also reported on the story:
The funding suspension was announced Friday after several people targeted by @IranDisinfo pointed out what they called harassment by a U.S. government-linked account. They suggested they were being targeted for criticizing or questioning the Trump administration’s hardline stance on Iran.
Among those criticized by the tweets, which have now been deleted, were a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a Washington Post columnist, a BBC journalist and a professor at Georgetown University, according to Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American commentator who was also targeted.
Borzou Daragahi described the campaign very well over the weekend:
Not a mere echo chamber, but a semi-covert psychological warfare and propaganda operation using federal taxpayer funds earmarked for foreign services activities to target US citizens on US soil https://t.co/qT2wIT9m3x
— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) May 31, 2019
Accusing administration critics of doing the regime’s bidding amounts to mimicking the regime’s own practices for vilifying its internal critics, and those ugly practices need to be discouraged and condemned rather than subsidized with taxpayer dollars.