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Iran’s Government Is Paying Anti-Israel Protesters as Part of US Influence Campaign, National Intelligence Director Says

The Iranian government is organizing and paying anti-Israel protesters in the United States as part of a foreign influence campaign meant to sow division across the country ahead of the 2024 elections, according to a warning Tuesday from the director of national intelligence.

“Iranian government actors have sought to opportunistically take advantage of ongoing protests regarding the war in Gaza, using a playbook we’ve seen other actors use over the years,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines wrote in a rare public statement. “We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters.”

The revelations come as Iran, Russia, China, and other malign nations ramp up their cyber operations and other spy activities in anticipation of the November elections. In 2020, Iranian hackers successfully broke into a municipal system used to publish election results and engaged in disinformation campaigns meant to sway those results. Tehran is implementing a similar playbook this year, using nationwide unrest over Israel’s war against Hamas to embolden far-left activists who have been violently campaigning against the Jewish state for the last nine months, according to the DNI.

“Iran is becoming increasingly aggressive in their foreign influence efforts, seeking to stoke discord and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions, as we have seen them do in the past, including in prior election cycles,” Haines said. “They continue to adapt their cyber and influence activities, using social media platforms and issuing threats.”

The intelligence community assesses that Iran “will continue to rely on their intelligence services in these efforts, as well as Iran-based online influencers, to promote their narratives.”

Americans who have been sucked into Tehran’s online orbit “may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government,” according to Haines. “We urge all Americans to remain vigilant as they engage online with accounts and actors they do not personally know.”

The DNI simultaneously defended those who engage in anti-Israel protests, saying they are operating “in good faith.”

“I want to be clear that I know Americans who participate in protests are, in good faith, expressing their views on the conflict in Gaza—this intelligence does not indicate otherwise,” Haines said.

The U.S. intelligence community warned in March that Iran and other nations have the capabilities and desire to “conduct influence operations” meant to interfere in the 2024 election.

Iran, along with its allies in Russia and China, is a leading force in the online disinformation sphere. These operations have gone into overdrive in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, with Iran enlisting a vast network of propaganda accounts to foment anti-Israel and anti-Semitic unrest.

“In the wake of Hamas’s horrifying attack on Israel on October 7, the terrorist group is once again seeking to shape the information environment to create international pressure that compels Israel to stop its operations before achieving its objectives,” the Jewish Institute for the National Security of America, a think tank, assessed in October 2023, shortly after the terror strike. “Reliance on influence operations is straight out of the playbook of Hamas’s chief benefactor: Iran.”

In May, Iran’s supreme leader issued a statement supporting anti-Israel campus protesters who were targeting Jewish students at some of America’s most prestigious schools, saying they are building a global “resistance front” and “standing on the right side.”

Iranian state news outlets and their online organs have led a sustained disinformation campaign against Israel, accusing it of genocide, starvation, and the intentional killing of women and children in the Gaza Strip, according to multiple reports.

A purported Iranian government document published by Iran International in April showed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is playing a central role “in directing an international campaign aimed at disrupting the world economy in protest against Israel.”

“Given the recent developments in the issue of Palestine and the psychological impact of the Al-Aqsa Storm operation on Palestinian communities in European and American countries, it was determined to implement significant support measures for April 15 and other rallies with the aim to achieve political isolation [of Israel],” Iranian officials wrote.

The cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike warned in February that Iran “may be planning to interfere in the forthcoming elections in the country.” The watchdog group said that “Iran-nexus adversaries and Middle East hacktivist adversaries were also observed pivoting cyber operations in alignment with kinetic operations stemming from the 2023 Israel-Hamas conflict.”

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