US officials have criticised a scandalous online campaign that used taxpayer dollars to smear critics of the Trump administration’s hawkish stance on Iran.
At the centre of the firestorm is the Iran Disinformation Project, launched in 2018 by the State Department’s Global Engagement Centre, which was created to tackle foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts.
It came into the spotlight last month, after it appeared that the project had steered from its stated goal of countering the “nefarious influence” of Tehran to slandering those who didn’t support the ever-growing US pressure on the Islamic Republic or appeared too soft on Iran.
“Iran Disinfo targeted these journalists and analysts because they refused to recite arguments in favour of regime change and war,” said reporter Negar Mortazavi.
Iran Disinfo targeted these journalists and analysts because they refused to recite arguments in favor of regime change and war. They used their expertise and understanding of Iran to question the efficacy of sanctions and spoke out against the folly of military intervention. https://t.co/wKaAhfEkml— Negar Mortazavi (@NegarMortazavi) 12 июня 2019 г.
What other @StateDept funded organizations claiming to promote democracy in #Iran are using taxpayer money to harass, intimidate, threaten and slander American journalists & academics?— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) 31 мая 2019 г.
Follow the money folks.
According to The Independent, Congressional staffers questioned the integrity of the campaign at a behind-closed-doors meeting with government officials, who acknowledged that its work fell outside the scope of the project.
"It's completely unacceptable that American taxpayer dollars supported a project that attacked Americans and others who are critical of the Trump administration's policy of escalation and conflict with Iran,” a senior Congressional aide told the newspaper.
“It's an outrage that the Trump Administration was funnelling taxpayer dollars to a smear campaign accusing US citizens of dual loyalty to a foreign regime,” said Dylan Williams of the Jewish-American liberal advocacy group J Street.
“Decent people wouldn't tolerate such state-sponsored defamation if the target was Jewish Americans and we shouldn't when the target is Iranian-Americans.”
The State Department reportedly revealed to lawmakers that Iran Disinfo (the project’s name on Twitter) had received $1.5 million in funding.
In late May, a State Department spokesperson announced that the funding for Iran Disinfo had been suspended “until the implementer takes necessary steps to ensure that any future activity remains within the agreed scope of work”. Many of its tweets have since been deleted.
The State Department outsourced the project to E-Collaborative for Civic Education, a US-based non-profit co-founded by Iranian-American human rights advocate Mariam Memarsadeghi.
Congressional staffers from across the aisle are said to have been “highly critical” of the project. They questioned whether E-Collaborative for Civic Education should remain the contractor, but the State Department failed to clarify what steps would be made to end co-operation with the group.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran flared up last year after Donald Trump jettisoned the 2015 nuclear deal. He has since gone to great lengths to pressure Iran into a new deal, which he expected to be more effective than the previous one, including by re-instating tough economic sanctions against the oil-rich country.
Iran has been reluctant to US pressure, while the Pentagon last month began building up its military presence in the Middle East, citing a yet-unspecified threat from Iran or its proxy groups.