A campaign funded by the U.S. Department of State amplified an influential, war-hungry D.C. think tank chief’s attacks on Iranian-American anti-war advocates, apparently turning a new government-sponsored anti-disinformation initiative into a megaphone for advocates of military confrontation with Tehran.
The @IranDisinfo Twitter account boosted Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) chief executive Mark Dubowitz, while a website associated with the social media profile published the work of FDD senior adviser Saeed Ghasseminejad.
The campaign — formally known as the Iran Disinformation Project — received funding from the State Department through its Global Engagement Center, an initiative created in 2017 with the aim of countering foreign propaganda efforts.
But State pulled funding for the campaign on Friday after IranDisinfo was found to be attacking American opponents of the Trump administration’s Iran policy, telling journalists in a statement that some of its activities went beyond the “scope” of the grant.
Those attacked include Washington Post journalist Jason Rezanian, who was imprisoned by the Iranian government for 544 days, and a Human Rights Watch researcher probing the effects of sanctions on access to medicine in Iran.
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
IranDisinfo retweeted a critique that Dubowitz posted of Rezaian’s work:
The account then launched its own attack on Rezaian.
While maybe less than half a percent of Iranians are affected by the US #TravelBan, millions of them suffer at the hand of a brutal corrupt regime. @Jrezaian on his big platform of the WaPo dedicates every other piece to the travel ban but hardly mentions the regime's HR abuses. https://t.co/W7POQL0RBW
— IranDisinfo (@IranDisinfo) March 25, 2019
“The common thread is that we are all perceived by regime change proponents and supporters of the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure policy to be soft on Iran because we are critical of crushing economic sanctions and the threat of the use of military force against it,” Rezaian wrote in a Tuesday column.
The accusations against IranDisinfo can be traced in part to FDD, a hawkish think tank founded in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks that is closely associated with the Trump administration’s Iran policy.
FDD denied any formal relationship with IranDisinfo in a statement to TPM.
“FDD is not involved in the IranDisinfo publication, nor has FDD provided funding for the publication,” the think tank said. “Nor does our organization receive any State Department funding.”
The group spearheaded the effort to prevent — and later, repeal — Obama’s Iran deal, earning Dubowitz a New York Times profile. He maintains that he supports a fix for the deal.
As an unnamed former Trump foreign policy official told Buzzfeed, “If you want to know what’s going to happen next in Iran policy, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s whatever has been in the latest Mark Dubowitz or FDD op-ed.”
FDD had advocated for the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” against the Iranian government, aimed at using every lever available — short of military force — to tighten the screws on Tehran.
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a July 2018 speech, that pressure involves efforts to fight Iran through the media.
“For 40 years the Iranian people have heard from their leaders that America is the ‘Great Satan’,” Pompeo said. “We do not believe they are interested in hearing the fake news any longer.”
But IranDisinfo appears to have aligned itself with FDD in its bid to go after voices in the Iranian-American community that are critical of U.S. policy towards Tehran.
Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, told TPM that she came under attack from “bots” and “trolls” after Dubowitz drew attention to her tweets and to an event she was involved in called “Rethinking Iran.”
I remember fondly those days when @SAISHopkins hosted panels featuring different perspectives on important foreign policy topics. https://t.co/MUgRVKHnqE
— Mark Dubowitz (@mdubowitz) April 22, 2019
Another wave of criticism came after IranDisinfo shared a Persian translation of Dubowitz’s tweet.
مارک دوبویتز، مدیر اجرایی «بنیاد دفاع از دموکراسیها» در پاسخی به باربارا اسلاوین نوشته: «اوه. چه بسیجی ناز و مدرنی. بله، همان بسیجی که ایرانیان را شکنجه میکند و میکشد. ممنون از نرگس باجغلی و باربارا اسلاوین برای نمایش روی دیگر #ایران.» #مدافعان_شیطانhttps://t.co/ztE7a2vNuF
— IranDisinfo (@IranDisinfo) April 19, 2019
Bajoghli told TPM that after the tweets, she began to receive a torrent of angry messages, while her employer even got requests for her dismissal.
“It goes in spurts,” Bajoghli said of the harassment. “It totally tracks political events with the U.S. and Iran.”
FDD denied coordinating with IranDisinfo, telling TPM that “thousands of people retweet our experts,” and that the group neither tracks “each one” nor does it “direct any of them.”
IranDisinfo’s website also published reports by Saeed Ghasseminejad, an FDD senior adviser.
The reports focused on exposing disinformation by the Iranian government and, specifically, the country’s Revolutionary Guard. FDD republished them on its website, and heavily promoted them.
“One of our experts has published three articles for the publication and we included these on our website as we do with all publications by our experts so others can benefit from their insights,” FDD said in a statement after TPM asked Ghasseminejad and Dubowitz for comment. “That is what most think tanks do.”
Many of the IranDisinfo’s most aggressive tweets have since been deleted, said Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American commentator who first noticed (and was targeted by) the account.
“They have a common enemy,” Mortazavi told TPM. “I don’t know how coordinated they are. But I can see that as a result, they are playing a role in promoting this stuff online.”
Ghasseminejad addressed the allegations on Twitter, saying that “FDD is not involved in any way with the IDP.”
Dubowitz derided the accusers on Twitter as well, calling them “conspiracists who see @FDD’s hand in everything.”