IRAN’S COVERT INFLUENCE OPERATIONS
NOVEMBER 14, 2023
Remarks by Professor Ivan Sascha Sheehan
Thank you, Ambassador Bloomfield, for your extraordinarily generous remarks.
Your sterling reputation and commitment to public service as a statesman, diplomat, and national security leader inspires all of us, but I have also learned a great deal from your scholarly interpretations of Iranian affairs and measured assessments of Middle East policy. I was truly honored that you authored the foreword for the book we are releasing today. A few other expressions of gratitude are in order, as well.
I’d like to thank the extraordinary team at the Iran Policy Committee for all that they do to help produce actionable research and timely analyses for U.S. officials in the legislative and executive branches. For almost two decades, the Iran Policy Committee has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to educating the public about U.S. policy toward Iran, the regime’s malign activities, and the pro-democracy opposition operating inside the country. IPC’s efforts to convene briefings on these urgent policy matters have also helped to inform U.S. officials. We had an opportunity to pay tribute to the founder of the IPC, the late Political Scientist Raymond Tanter, earlier this fall right here in Washington. Professor Tanter served on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council in the Reagan White House and taught for decades at the University of Michigan. Though he is no longer with us, I trust that he would be very proud of IPC’s staff today.
Let me also extend my deep appreciation to the Organization of Iranian American Communities for helping to today’s book release here in Congress. They have worked tirelessly to coordinate today’s forum and I thank them for all that they do to remind the American public that the regime in Tehran is not an accurate reflection of the Iranian people.
I’d also like to thank the University of Baltimore for providing me the academic freedom to examine the topics that I believe are most important. I firmly believe that societies are better when people have accurate access to information and when they are allowed to think, debate, and speak freely. Having examined academic freedom in Iran, this is a privilege that I am keenly aware is not afforded to my counterparts in Iran.
And, finally, I’d like to thank Congressman McClintock and his staff for opening today’s event. As the Co-Chair of the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus, his support for those fighting for a free, democratic, and secular republic is noticed all over the world. And his efforts to ensure that the international community holds Iranian authorities accountable for the crimes they commit is appreciated by those held captive by the autocratic regime in power.
At the top of my remarks, allow me to offer a few reflections that I believe will help set the stage for why what we are doing here today in the U.S. Congress matters so much.
Just a few days ago, after he endorsed my book, Professor Alejo Vidal-Quadras – a former Vice President of the European Parliament and the current President of the International Committee in Search of Justice – was brazenly attacked in Madrid by armed assailants outside his home. The assault, which occurred in the middle of the day, was carried out by two individuals who took off on a motorcycle after discharging a weapon at close range in an apparent assassination attempt. Though he was struck by a bullet in the jaw, Professor Vidal-Quadras miraculously survived. This shameless attack occurred in the largest city in Spain, the fourth-most populous EU member state. Spanish authorities have correctly dispatched an anti-terrorism unit to investigate, and the inquiry remains opens. But when Professor Vidal-Quadras was asked from his hospital bed who he believed had carried out the ambush, he immediately fingerprinted the Iranian regime. It was hardly a far-fetched proposition. Because precisely one year ago, the Iranian Foreign Ministry accused the professor of the grave offense of supporting the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, a group opposed to the Ayatollahs and committed to overthrowing the regime. In Iran, this is a capital offense of the highest order. As a Member of Parliament, he was among the most outspoken champions of the Iranian resistance in Europe and remains highly regarded by his American counterparts. And in the days before he was attacked, he offered a ringing endorsement of the book we are releasing today. You can see his words on the book cover. He called the manuscript:
“…a compelling assessment of the Iranian regime’s malign attempts to push an influence operation intended to shift American policy by demonizing the Islamic Republic’s democratic opposition and infiltrating the highest echelons of the U.S. government.
He went on to call the study “essential reading for policymakers, especially those dealing with national security matters.” In case he sees this briefing, I would like him to know that our thoughts are with him, and we wish him a speedy recovery. I am pleased to know that counterterrorism authorities are investigating this attack on such a high-profile European statesman. But let me just say that I have spent a great deal of time during my career pouring over terrorism incident data during my research career.
In my review of highly credible terrorism incident databases, I am simply not familiar with an incident with these attributes or characteristics occurring in the heart of Spain during daylight hours in recent memory. Those of us who study terrorist organizations and their state sponsors know that these entities are rarely creative in their use of violence. Murder for hire schemes, kidnapping attempts, and assassination plots have been ordered by Iranian authorities right here in Washington. In fact, I am aware that efforts have been undertaken to target individuals in this room with sanctions and violence. A plot to bomb a meeting I was at in Paris in 2018 was thwarted by Western intelligence agencies and the Iranian spy involved was tried, convicted, and sentenced. They tried to intimidate us again in 2022 and 2023.
Some of you may have tuned into 60 Minutes this past Sunday and watched the former National Security Advisor, Ambassador John Bolton, describe the Iranian regime’s efforts to assassinate him on American soil. The fact of the matter is that Tehran frequently targets outspoken critics of its dangerous and oppressive policies. Every indicator that is present today suggests that the attack on Professor Vidal-Quadras was ordered by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But let me be clear: As a scholar that has himself been targeted by rogue actors – as someone that has experienced death threats and harassment – I can assure you that efforts to silence and intimidate policymakers, intellectuals, and political opponents does not pay off in free societies. And this brings me to our topic today.
The book that we are releasing today is the culmination of years of extensive research into Iran’s covert strategies to manipulate political and social narratives in the United States. It offers fresh insights into the digital and on-the-ground methods used by Iran to influence American institutions and decision-making processes, and intimidate U.S. officials. I firmly believe that the findings outlined in this study are crucial for understanding and safeguarding the integrity of U.S. national security and our democratic institutions – particularly as tensions flare in the Middle East and the American electorate readies for a presidential election next year.
Recent assessments suggest that the U.S. is highly likely to experience election interference spearheaded by Russia, China, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it’s not simply election interference that Americans should be concerned with. Iran’s efforts to infiltrate American politics and influence U.S. policy is broader and more insidious.
This book breaks new ground by extending reporting undertaken by prominent news outlets to connect additional dots by uncovering the theocratic regime’s overt suppression and covert tactics, fixation with its organized opposition, and fear of regime change from within.
Iran policy scholars have long understood that the ayatollahs fear internal dissent more than they do external pressure. In a prior study, the Iran Policy Committee undertook a content analysis of state run media sources and determined that the MEK and NCRI are discussed by regime officials almost four times as often as all other dissident organizations combined. The book we are releasing today helps to explain the regime’s malevolent attempts to undermine these organizations and, as a result, to shape U.S. policy. As we release today’s book, it is important that we take a step back to acknowledge the broader global backdrop that we find ourselves in.
We meet today at time of great turmoil in global affairs.
Russia, North Korea, and Iran constitute an axis of rogue state actors – each with surrogates and allies – that have committed themselves to violence, belligerence, and terrorism. The people of Ukraine are faced with unimaginable horrors imposed by their Russian aggressors. Locked in an existential battle with Hamas, Israel continues to face down the specter of terrorism. And proxy wars rage throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But this bring me to perhaps the most important thing I will say today:
These rogue states and their surrogates are also employing elaborate and sophisticated instability operations and influence campaigns that are coloring American perceptions and constraining U.S. policy options. These activities constitute warfare cloaked in a web of intermediaries to avoid direct attribution. In the case of Iran, the massive campaign of deception dates back more than four decades. Negotiations over the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has long involved Tehran’s masterful cheat and retreat strategies and dishonest diplomacy. But the regime’s use of assets and agents – some of whom have infiltrated the U.S. Government – has been given comparatively less attention.
As a scholar, I have tried to do what the legislative and executives branches of government have failed to do – and the media has not done – and that is to connect the dots. I suspect that what I have revealed in this book is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As Ambassador Bloomfield indicates in his foreword, the book we are releasing today pulls back the curtain on the Iranian regime’s efforts to silence its pro-democracy foes and to intimidate the United States. These influence operations help to explain why U.S. officials are faced with the false dichotomy of military intervention against a rogue state on the one hand and unending diplomacy grounded in appeasement on the other. This is not an accurate reflection of the options available to U.S. officials.
In this book, I help to contextualize the disinformation peddled through an intricate network of Iranian operatives and how these influence operations undermine the organized resistance and U.S. national security. Earlier this fall, SEMAFOR and Iran International exposed a ring of Iranian-backed influence operatives that had infiltrated the highest ranks of the U.S. government. The disclosures were startling but hardly surprising to those that track the regime closely. Having been provided with top-level security clearances, these Iranian agents had access to highly classified information available only to senior U.S. officials, placing them in a unique position to mislead American policymakers.
The actors allegedly collaborated with and took direction from senior Iranian officials while maintaining the appearance of working on behalf of the U.S. government. As SEMAFOR noted, at least three of these operatives went straight from soliciting talking points from Tehran to working on Iran policy in the Biden administration under U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Rob Malley.
Malley’s security clearance was subsequently suspended over concerns related to his handling of classified information. As a footnote, he was a key architect of the Obama and Biden administration’s Middle East policies that had the effect of empowering the Islamic Republic of Iran. The billions of dollars funneled to the regime during his tenure were reportedly used to strengthen Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Assad family in Syria – all of which is suddenly very material today. While the principal objective of the years long disinformation campaign uncovered by Semafor was to influence and derail U.S. policy toward Iran, those involved also prioritized the promotion of a misleading characterization of the leading Iranian opposition group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. By seeking to neutralize favorable impressions of the organization among Washington’s foreign policy elite, the mullahs in Iran sought to take down an entity capable of aiding Western attempts to curtail the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program, malign regional agenda, human rights abuses, and fundamentalist inclinations.
By brazenly targeting the dissident organization, the operatives hoped to leave U.S. officials with the false impression that there is no viable alternative to the ayatollahs – and certainly not one with a pro-democracy record.
In this book, I outline the regime’s elaborate campaign to install spies and agents, paid hands and mouthpieces in positions of influence. These operatives did exactly what they were told to do – they promoted Tehran’s viewpoints, peddled disinformation about the MEK and NCRI, discouraged U.S. officials from pursuing regime change, and warned against support for alternatives to the despotic regime.
In Part I, I examine how the Iran Experts Initiative was rolled out to foster misleading impressions and promote the notion that the Iranian people are little more than compulsive protesters – and that the cries for civil and human rights on the Iranian street are nothing more than a normal part of everyday life and not an indication of an overarching desire for change in Iran.
In Part II, I examine the pro-democracy, anti-regime protests that have rocked the Islamic Republic and exacerbated anxieties, including the fear of overthrow. On this point, it is crucial to acknowledge that the Iranian regime has been hammered by repeated waves of anti-regime protests since at least September 2022. In that year alone, some 280 cities in all 31 provinces participated in collective action against their rulers. Senior Iranian officials have repeatedly blamed these protests on the MEK and NCRI.
In Part III, I uncover the disinformation tactics and influence operations employed to paint inaccurate impressions of the organized opposition.
In Part IV, I explore the security agencies active against the regime’s opponents.
And in Part V, I examine why the regime has moved from simply peddling falsity to attacking the opposition.
The bottom line is that Iran’s hidden hand – efforts to demonize the Iranian opposition abroad and attack dissidents at home – is part of the regime’s geopolitical survival strategy.
I believe that the book we are releasing today is essential reading for decision-makers here in Washington.
The world knows about Iran’s nuclear, terror, missile, drone, and cyber threats, but far less is known about how the ayatollahs push their policies in the U.S. and around the world. The report we are releasing today highlights the strategies used by Islamic Republic to undermine the nationwide uprising and portray the regime as invincible to gain concessions from the U.S. and Europe. Both inside and outside Iran, Tehran leverages agents and assets, spies and operatives to stay in power and advance a rogue agenda that is contrary to U.S. interests. These operatives shape policy options, cajole high level figures, and when all else fails they use fear tactics, intimidation, and violence.
It is often remarked that, in the world of espionage, all is not always what it seems. Some of these individuals are disguised as opponents of the regime – reformists like the followers of the Shah who would have you believe that a monarchy, not a democracy, is the answer. But as a scholar that studies Iran, I can tell you with certainty: the Iranian people want democracy, not clerical rule or a monarchy. The people’s universal calls are for a democratic future. Though I have been somewhat discouraged by the failure to act against the Iranian regime by the executive branch, I have been encouraged by what I have seen from Congress.
Congress has shown courage in reminding the world that the Iranian regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world – a distinction it has earned every year since 1984. But now more needs to be done. The House and Senate must call for investigations and hearings.
The Iranian regime poses a direct national security threat to U.S. citizens and security interests. The fact of the matter is that no person or organization who aligns themselves with a hostile state or who serves as a foreign agent should wield influence over U.S. policy or have access to sensitive national security information. We have seen House Resolutions calling on the use of “all means necessary to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” But now we need resolutions and legislation to leverage all means necessary to develop a more complete sense of Iran’s influence and espionage operations and to address the regime’s infiltration in U.S. politics, including the tactics they employ to advance their broader geopolitical goals. This will have broad consequences for U.S. policy toward Iran and shift the focus from a regime centered approach to a people centered approach.
In recent days, I have been asked by journalists how my assessment extends the reporting by Semafor. So, let me speak briefly to that question. Whereas the Semafor report delves into the operational details of the IEI, including funding sources and the nature of the interactions between participants and Iranian officials, this report focuses on the implications of the IEI for U.S. policy towards Iran and the potential manipulation of the narrative surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and opposition groups.
This report raises concerns about the alleged activities and associations of individuals like Ariane Tabatabai – for example her advancement of Iranian interests, interactions with Iranian officials, and her proximity to key U.S. national security figures.
This report provides examines Tabatabai’s activities, including her publication record and statements at academic conferences – including her warning against U.S. support for alternatives to the ayatollahs and her portrayal of the MEK.
In light of what appears to be a well-orchestrated campaign to manipulate U.S. policy, I am today prepared to call the question:
Have Iranian influence operations given way to espionage?
How extensive is the damage?
And are U.S. officials prepared to act?
In closing, it is clear to me that Iranian’s readiness to confront the regime’s suppressive forces is at an all-time high. It would nevertheless be naive to assume that Iran’s theocratic rulers will not persist in their policy of repression to the bitter end, refusing to alter their behavior. Every indication points to three conclusions:
(1) the overwhelming majority of Iranians want regime change;
(2) the Islamic Republic’s over-reliance on brute force makes the status quo intensely fragile;
(3) Iran is ripe for a democratic transition.
If the past is prologue, I believe that the Iranian resistance will play a critical role in Iran’s future. It would, therefore, be a grave mistake for U.S. officials and Western powers to formulate any policy on Iran without taking the regime’s foremost adversaries into account. And, perhaps even more importantly, to allow influence operations to undermine their ability to replace the regime.
Thank you once again for taking time from your busy schedules to attend today’s briefing.
I do hope that when hearings are held and investigations get underway, you will invite Ambassador Bloomfield and me back.
At this time, let me invite Ambassador Bloomfield back to the podium to take your questions and comments.
“IRAN: The Ayatollah’s Hidden Hand” by Professor Ivan Sascha Sheehan
Available for Purchase on November 14, 2023