Election Cybersecurity: Iran Steps Up its Online Disinformation — and the Justice Department Responds

In the fight to protect the integrity of American elections — our mandate here at the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative, where our “candidate is democracy” — combatting online disinformation is among the most pressing challenges. Iran has been emerging as an increasingly aggressive actor in this space, by, for example, running troll farms that create content designed to sow discord in the United States over hot button issues and to spread antisemitic tropes.

In response, the U.S. Justice Department is hitting back against this nefarious online behavior. In late June, it announced that the United States seized 36 Iranian-linked website domains, 33 of which it said were spreading disinformation and three that were supporting terrorist activity. Their release said that “components of the government of Iran, to include IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.” (IRTVU, the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, used the 33 websites seized.)

Interestingly, the fact that the Justice Department announced actions against both disinformation and terrorist websites together underscores how big of a threat it now believes the former is — on par, rhetorically at least, with the terrorist threat that has so defined our country since 9/11.

This isn’t the first time the U.S. Government has taken this kind of action. In October 2020, Justice announced it had taken down nearly 100 websites used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the hardline paramilitary protectors of the Iranian regime and its foreign policy activities, for waging a “global disinformation campaign” which “targeted the United States for the spread of Iranian propaganda to influence United States domestic and foreign policy.”

In both last October’s and this most recent Justice Department activity, it cited violations of previously levied sanctions on some of the entities, violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), or violations of Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations as justification. It is an interesting policy development that these tools, which can appear dry and overly-bureaucratic on paper — and which some have wrongly argued aren’t serious regulations, especially FARA — can be used for these kinds of aggressive cyber punishments.

The latest Justice Department action took place on the heels of Iran’s presidential contest, in which hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was elected to succeed Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as more open to Western engagement than many other leaders in Tehran. Raisi’s government is, as one commentator told the New York Times, “the first government that is entirely beholden to Ayatollah Khamenei,” Iran’s Supreme Leader who has the ultimate say on all domestic and foreign policy decisions. Raisi, a cleric and head of the country’s judiciary, is also tied to an incredibly bloody series of political trials and executions during a time when the judiciary was accelerating purges of opponents of the Islamic regime.

It is too soon to tell what Raisi’s election might mean for Iran’s online foreign interference in the U.S. and elsewhere, but it is safe to say that the new president has shown a willingness throughout his career to use any tactic to attack its purported enemies. And while both the Supreme Leader and Raisi have backed talks to re-start the 2015 nuclear agreement that the Trump administration withdrew from, that willingness should not indicate that Iran’s covert online disinformation campaigns might simultaneously slow down. It is just as likely that they will continue to accelerate, as Tehran hedges its bets about the possibility of a re-invigorated nuclear agreement and a new president seeks to demonstrate his authority.

Either way, as I have long argued, diplomatic engagement — even and especially with adversaries like Iran — is a necessary component of countering nefarious activity, whether it comes from the threat of conventional military or nuclear weapons, paramilitary activities, or online disinformation campaigns. Diplomacy, backed by a credible promise of retaliatory action (such as these Justice Department actions), has to form the backbone of such a policy. The third piece of that stool — offensive cyber capabilities, similar to what the U.S. Government reportedly used fairly successfully against Iran’s nuclear program — also has to be considered. We cannot wait for the next attack to respond; we must think through what offensive, proactive options might dissuade or prevent Iran from undertaking these kinds of malicious online attacks on the United States before they happen.

Marie Harf
International Elections Analyst, USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative

Marie Harf is a strategist who has focused her career on promoting American foreign policy to domestic audiences. She has held senior positions at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, worked on political campaigns for President Barack Obama and Congressman Seth Moulton, and served as a cable news commentator. Marie has also been an Instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

 For more resources and insight into the state of elections in the US and abroad, be sure to check the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative’s Experts Corner each week.