The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Iran’s goal is to undermine democracy. Americans shouldn’t take the bait.

Then-Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) on Capitol Hill in May. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Ariane M. Tabatabai is the Middle East fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund and an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University. She is the author of “No Conquest, No Defeat — Iran’s National Security Strategy.”

On Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe called a news conference to warn Americans that foreign adversaries were actively interfering in the U.S. elections. Ratcliffe noted that two countries, Russia and Iran, have launched efforts to influence the course of the elections. That Russia would be involved in interference efforts is not surprising. After all, Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections is well documented, and the Kremlin remains the key threat to the current elections. But the assessment that Iran was active alongside Russia quickly raised eyebrows.

While Ratcliffe’s revelations raise many questions, the fact that Iran would seek to interfere with the U.S. elections shouldn’t come as a surprise. This falls in line with Iran’s long-standing goal to undermine democracy at home and abroad.

According to Ratcliffe, who did not cite specific evidence, Iran acquired voter data — some of which is publicly available — and used it to send spoofed emails to intimidate voters. These threatening emails appeared to come from the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group that became a household name during the first presidential debate when President Trump seemingly refused to condemn it. The emails reportedly targeted Democrats in Alaska and Florida, a battleground state, threatening them into voting for Trump.

But how would the United States be able to attribute these efforts to Iran so quickly? Who in Iran would be linked to such an effort? And why would Iran, which has been the target of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign — which has left the Iranian economy in shambles and led to the targeted killing of its top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani — ostensibly seek to boost the president?

The U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly and consistently warned that Iran was among the authoritarian actors looking to undermine democracy through election interference, particularly by seeking to influence voters. In fact, one such a statement had been issued in July, just over 100 days ahead of the upcoming election. The statement warned that Iran, Russia and China would “use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process.”

Iran’s capabilities lag behind those of Russia and China, and the regime’s operations aren’t as sophisticated. This might be the reason Washington was able to quickly attribute the efforts to Tehran. Indeed, according to Reuters, mistakes in a video accompanying some of the emails may have facilitated quick attribution by U.S. government and private tech company analysts.

Over the past decade, Iran has sought to expand its tool kit and enhance its capabilities, and it has learned from Russia and China in the process. Its tool kit now includes cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and malign finance — though these operations often prove much less effective than those undertaken by other key authoritarian actors.

Contrary to Ratcliffe’s claims, it’s unlikely that Iran’s primary goal was to hurt Trump’s campaign or boost his challenger. To be sure, Tehran would benefit from embarrassing the president, as his administration continues to increase pressure on the Islamic Republic. But the main goal pursued by Iran — similarly to Russia and China — is to exacerbate divisions along ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and partisan lines in the United States, and to sow chaos and confusion. This not only allows Iran to retaliate for what it sees as similar efforts by the U.S. government on Iran, but it also helps Iran discredit democracy as a system of government.

November will mark the first anniversary of the 2019 economic protests throughout Iran, to which the regime responded by shutting down the Internet, killing hundreds in just three days, and subsequently arbitrarily detaining and torturing thousands, including children. In previous years, the regime had faced similar unrest, and it recently executed a wrestling champion for his participation in the 2018 protests. It’s clear that the regime doesn’t have an answer to the growing discontent within the country. Its system of government isn’t attractive and, as a result, it has resorted — as most authoritarian regimes do — to repression and discrediting democracy.

It would be a mistake to ascribe to Iran narrow objectives centered on shaping the outcome of the upcoming elections. Iran’s goal is to exploit divisions in American society and to undermine our democratic institutions and processes. By doing so, Iran hopes to better position itself in a competition it can’t win with either hard or soft power — and to telegraph to its own population that, despite its failures, the regime has no viable democratic alternative.

Fighting over which candidate Iran wants to boost or hurt, rather than focusing on how to respond in a unified way to these threats, will only play into Tehran’s hands. Americans shouldn’t take the bait.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: How the Iran news actually undermines one of Trump’s biggest lies

Jason Rezaian: One thing the virus hasn’t changed — Iran and the U.S. still hate each other

Philip H. Gordon and Ariane M. Tabatabai: Trump must ease sanctions against Iran or face a humanitarian catastrophe

Nazanin Boniadi: Why Iran’s coronavirus pandemic is also a crisis of human rights

Holly Dagres: How Iranian hackers tried to phish me