Skepticism surrounding the Trump administration’s approach towards Iran has been on full display following recent attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to publicly draw the conclusion that Iran was responsible, and the US Navy released grainy footage as proof, the reception from the public and even America’s closest allies has been circumspection. A question that many in Washington have been asking in private has increasingly become public: are we witnessing a ham-fisted, Trumpian rerun of America’s past misadventures towards war, this time with Iran? Many are already bracing themselves for Pompeo’s version of Colin Powell’s vial of anthrax at the UN. And even before the tanker attacks, talk of the Gulf of Tonkin and “remember the Maine” were being thrown around by typically sober-minded analysts.
While the truth behind the tanker episode may reveal itself to be exactly what Pompeo has claimed — or exposed as something more nefarious — the machinations behind a separate campaign to shore up the humanitarian case for war with Iran have already begun to unravel. And the fingerprints of key players in the Trump administration and its allies are all over it.
Many are already bracing themselves for Pompeo’s version of Colin Powell’s vial of anthrax at the UN.
In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration propped up an Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, as the voice of the Iraqi people. Thanks to Chalabi, Americans were led to believe Iraqis wanted their country to be invaded and, in the words of the administration, the US “would be greeted as liberators.” Nearly two decades later, in the age of social media, the proponents of war with Iran have not just propped up a single Iranian validator in support of intervention, but an entire cyber network of Iranian Chalabis. And while in many cases these accounts may indeed belong to organic supporters of regime change, recent revelations have cast a long shadow.
In recent weeks, as the Trump administration increased oil sanctions, raising concerns of an imminent war with Iran, this regime-change network escalated a simmering online smear campaign against anti-war voices into an all-out coordinated assault. Tweeting under provocative hashtags and amplified by accounts involved in what data experts describe as “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” this network has targeted my organization, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), and other Iranian Americans critical of the Iranian government but opposed to US intervention — including analysts and human rights experts, former government officials, and even journalists. Over Memorial Day weekend alone, they generated over 300,000 Tweets with the hashtag “#NIAClobbies4Mullahs,” and follow-on campaigns have continued since then.
Yet despite claims that these efforts are authentic, it was recently revealed by “The Intercept” that one of the Twitter users central to the campaign was in fact a fake persona operated by a team of operatives of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — a cult-like, formerly designated terrorist organization with close ties to Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Each has received payment in the tens of thousands of dollars to publicly advocate on behalf of the organization and its desire to topple the current Iranian regime and install its own “President-elect” to rule Iran.
Separately, at least one organization connected to the revisionist monarchist movement played a major role in the online regime-change efforts. And, shockingly, it turns out that the US government has been directly funding it. That group, Iran Disinformation Project, is one of several organizations headed by a member of the monarchist group “Farashgard,” or Iran Revival, that receives State Department and potentially Pentagon funding. For now, the US government has suspended Iran Disinformation Project’s funding pending further investigation. Interestingly, Iran Disinformation Project was not just benefitting from taxpayer funding, it also employed a top expert from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — a hardline pro-Israel think tank with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that supports US-led regime change in Iran and has deep influence in the Trump White House.
FDD is a key architect of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. Its chief executive Mark Dubowitz, who has amplified many of the hashtags attacking NIAC and other Iranian Americans, has advised the administration. A top former FDD staffer, Richard Goldberg, sits on Bolton’s National Security Council as the “director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction.” And FDD’s most prominent Iran analyst, Saeed Ghasseminejad, was a direct employee of the Iran Disinformation Project, according to Congressional officials.
While there are many loose ends and unknowns about what is really going on behind the scenes in the Trump administration on Iran, the dots that have been connected thus far are deeply troubling. Lawmakers have taken an interest in getting to the bottom of any taxpayer funding for efforts to attack journalists and civil society, but it remains to be seen how far they will be willing to go. Efforts to investigate the Trump administration’s coordination with the Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube to find dirt against Obama’s Iran team have apparently gone cold. And inquiries into the politically motivated demotions of top Iran experts, including an Iranian American personally targeted by a senior Iran official at the State Department, have been largely brushed off by Pompeo. One can only hope that the growing skepticism will be enough to arouse public suspicion and official pushback if Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo decide to make an end run to an actual war with Iran.
Jamal Abdi is president of the National Iranian American Council.