How An Iranian Influence Campaign Infiltrated US Congress

Friday, 10/06/2023
Gabriel Noronha

Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

During a March 25, 2020, cabinet meeting, President Hassan Rouhani revealed Tehran's propaganda efforts to alter public opinion on sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Iran International revealed recently the existence of a network which was promoting Iran’s policies on the global stage. These influence campaigns, which could be ultimately the same, might have reached and influenced US lawmakers and members of the US administration, including Robert Malley, who later became the US envoy for Iran.

Rouhani bragged to his top lieutenants “Our Foreign Ministry has launched a concerted effort to influence public opinion and to say ‘no’ to sanctions. Our efforts are geared at bringing back our money seized in other countries.” This campaign has been highly successful in recent months as the United States unfroze between $6 billion and $16 billion in Iranian funds that had been locked in South Korea and Iraq, claiming the funds would be used for food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods.

The need for the Iranian government’s campaign had started a year earlier when US oil sanctions had started shrinking the Iranian regime's ability to fund terror abroad. The New York Times quoted one Iranian-backed fighter in Syria saying"the golden days are gone and will never return," because "Iran doesn't have enough money to give us." 

Former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

This caused a panic in the Iranian regime, and the Foreign Ministry was tasked with pushing back against US sanctions. Led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, they developed and deployed two main public narratives: first, that sanctions didn't hurt the regime and would never bring it to the negotiating table, and then a second narrative: that sanctions only hurteveryday Iranians and prevented their access to medicine.

The emergence of COVID provided a powerful opportunity to reinforce this narrative - particularly around a claim that sanctions were blocking Iran from responding to the pandemic.

Iran was the first country after China to be inundated by the virus. The reason was politics: the regime pretended COVID didn't exist to protect its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. While other airlines were halting all flights in and out of China, Iranian airline Mahan Air operated at least 55 flights between Tehran and China in February 2020.

The regime only admitted COVID had even entered Iran nine days after the first death, and then – like China, the regime firmly cracked down on all information about the virus that could have saved lives. On March 5, the head of Iran’s cyber police announced the arrest of 121 Iranians for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus. The regime threatened medical staff against revealing accurate statistics of coronavirus cases and deaths.

The State Department was concerned that the unchecked spread of COVID inside Iran could further supercharge the virus, causing untold deaths in the country, the region, and beyond. On February 28, 2020, Secretary Pompeo confirmed the State Department had sent a diplomatic message to Iran offering medical aid. The regime rejected the offer within hours.

A month later the regime kicked out Doctors Without Borders, accusing their staff of being spies. But even while the regime rejected medical assistance from America and Europe, their propagandists claimed to Western audiences that US sanctions blocked Iran from getting help.

In early March 2020, the Foreign Ministry launched a propaganda clearinghouse called Corona2Plus. The site was a central repository and coordination center for Iran's "diplomats" and influencers around the world. While the site has since been erased from the internet before being archived, it featured ready-made graphics and talking points like one used by the Iranian Embassy in Norway which compared US President Donald Trump to the coronavirus, claiming that both killed Iranian people.

Former US President Donald Trump in New York City, October 4, 2023

These messages directed European and Western audiences to sign a petition on the propaganda site to “lift sanctions on Iran”. Iranian ambassadors were tasked with writing and distributing op-eds, particularly to Western audiences, designed to blame America for Iranian COVID deaths. One such letter, published in The Irish Times by Iran’s Ambassador to Ireland, claimed that sanctions were “denying Iranian people access to medical supplies and equipment.”

Not only do US sanctions have clear exemptions that allow humanitarian and medical trade with Iran, but the regime’s own Health Minister Saeed Namaki was simultaneously saying he had no problem obtaining all the necessary medicine and equipment. In late March 2020, Namaki admitted that Iran “has not faced a shortage of special drugs needed to treat this disease,” and that Iran had a seven-month stockpile of medicine.

Although the Iranian government was mishandling the response to the virus, the regime’s supporters focused their efforts pushing the blame onto US sanctions. This messages rapidly made their way into Western media, including through a March 17, 2020 opinion piece in Foreign Affairs by Robert Malley and Ali Vaez that stated the regime’s response to COVID “was hampered by shortages caused by sanctions… the government is now pleading for international assistance.” 

The authors cited as evidence a tweet by Foreign Minister Zarif supposedly listing desired medical equipment, then proceeded to argue the United States should permit an IMF loan to Iran “providing Tehran with some economic reprieve and the means to save lives at home.” Their piece was further amplified by a New York Times opinion piece that repeated even more Iranian talking points. The rapid rhetorical pivot from requesting COVID relief to suggesting financial relief was typical of regime messaging.

It is true the Iranian Ministry of Health lacked adequate funding to rapidly respond to the crisis. In January 2019, the Deputy Health Minister Hassan Hashemi even resigned in protest of budget cuts. But the government had no shortage of funds at this time they could have used to provide this funding. In 2018, Iran withdrew $2.5 billion from its National Development Fund for increased defense spending, and a further $1.5 billion in 2019 for other military expenses. 

The regime’s priorities have always been transparent through its budgetary decisions. On March 9, 2020, five Iranian parliamentarians begged Supreme Leader Khamenei to transfer assets from his $30-100 billion hedge fund for the COVID response. President Rouhani eventually wrote to the Supreme Leader requesting permission to withdraw $1 billion from the National Development Fund for that purpose. Before Khamenei responded to the urgent request, he intervened in the budgetary process to increase the IRGC's budget by 33% and doubled funding for the Basij brute squads.

Khamenei eventually approved allocation of one billion euros in foreign exchange reserves for the Health Ministry. But the majority of the funds never arrived. In September 2020, the Health Minister complained he had only received 27% of the promised funds, noting that healthcare workers were going unpaid. The chairman of the Parliament’s Health Committee Hossein Ali Shahriari charged that: “A billion dollars has been withdrawn from the fund but has been spent somewhere else.”

As the Iranian regime’s propaganda crescendoed in March 2020, some Members of Congress started retweeting content that came from Corona2Plus and calling for US sanctions on Iran to be lifted in order to save Iranian lives. Stories about these tweets were then posted on the Iranian propaganda center for further amplification. As the Corona2Plus site has since been erased from the internet, it is no longer possible to provide documentation of this particular development.

However, in late March 2020, 34 Senators and Representatives sent a letter to the State Department and Treasury Department calling for the suspension of oil sanctions to aid Iran's health response. However, anyone familiar with Iran’s budgetary process knows that oil revenue is funneled directly to the IRGC and Iran’s military, not to the Iranian people.

At that time, even some career officials in the State Department, where I worked at the time as the Special Advisor for Iran, were worried that these members of Congress - and the organizations that had endorsed the letter - had been influenced by the information environment fastidiously created by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei receives his first dose of the COVIran Barakat vaccine, developed by a state-affiliated conglomerate, in Tehran, Iran June 25, 2021.

The State Department sent a detailed response to these members outlining the facts about Iran's COVID mismanagement and how the United States had designed policies to help the Iranian people. Yet the propaganda advanced by Iran’s Foreign Ministry has persisted in messaging used to critique US sanctions on Iran.

A common theme echoed by many supporters of engagement with the Iranian government was that the United States should prioritize giving COVID vaccines to Iran – even before sending to US allies. This line of messaging was undercut when Supreme Leader Khamenei announced on January 8, 2021, a ban on the import of American and British vaccines. Medical experts estimated this ban resulted in the excess death of between 50,000-75,000 Iranians.

The sad reality is that time and again the regime does not hesitate to sacrifice the wellbeing of the Iranian people in order to advance its ideological aims and agendas. For years the regime has reallocated funding away from food, medicine, and medical equipment to fund its violent revolutionary ambitions. Then the regime and its supporters claim that Iran needs sanctions relief so the government can provide for the Iranian people.

Over the previous few months, the Iranian government achieved their aims set out by President Rouhani: the return of between $6-16 billion in Iranian assets held abroad. Unfortunately, the U.S. government continues to play in Iran’s own information environment, claiming the funds would be used for food, medicine, and humanitarian goods, despite ample evidence of abuse of these goods by the Iranian regime.

The past serves as a prelude, and we should not be surprised when the regime redirects the latest infusion of unfrozen cash. As that happens, Western governments should carefully document the abuse of funds and watch who will once again rise to the regime’s defense.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Iran International.

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