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‘Tehran can’t handle four more years of maximum pressure’: Expert weighs in on Iran’s election interference

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On Wednesday night, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe issued an announcement that Iran has been allegedly interfering in our election.

The pair revealed that Iran was working a disinformation campaign against the upcoming presidential election. Tehran allegedly sent emails that appeared to be sent by the group the “Proud Boys,” across the country. The controversial group has been called out as extremists by opponents during the civil unrest leading up to the election.

Ratcliffe and Wray said that Iran reportedly obtained voter information of registered Democrats and asked them to vote for President Trump. The email also asked them to switch their party affiliation to Republican with threatening messages.

“I think ultimately from a policy perspective, Tehran can’t handle four more years of maximum pressure,”

Behnam Ben Taleblu

“In short, Iran is stepping up its activities in the information warfare and cyber domain. I particularly believe these stories to be true,” Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Behnam Ben Taleblu told this reporter in an exclusive interview Thursday. “Our authoritarian adversaries be they Iran, Russia, China, even North Korea are looking to divide Americans against each other and really looking to inject discord into our political systems close to our election.”

Ben Taleblu added, “You know, I’ve watched very slowly Iran evolve in the quality of its analysis about our domestic politics over the past decade, particularly as our domestic politics have become more divisive and more public.”

“So, in this sense, I echo the finding of William Evanina, the NCSC official who earlier this August said that Iran doesn’t want to see a continuation of the maximum pressure policy and is looking to turn Americans against their own democratic institutions and thwart the election chances of President Trump to that effect which is what I believe he said back in August,” Taleblu said.

On Wednesday night, the revelation of emails quickly turned into a partisan issue. And it even led to Democrats on a Congressional committee calling the Director of National Intelligence a “partisan hack.”

They later deleted the tweet and issued a clarification.

Iran is seizing on existing divisions in America

Iran is seizing on existing divisions in America to sew even more division between opposing parties and ideologies that exist in the country. The regime did just that with the emails while also continuing to peddle conspiracy theories and spread disinformation on social media.

“This is another way to inject hatred and discord into this political system,” Ben Taleblu said, adding that Iran wants to “divide Americans against each other.”

“I think ultimately from a policy perspective, Tehran can’t handle four more years of maximum pressure,” he said. “But, in the immediate term, what they aim to do is exactly what you’re seeing in the national media, which is people taking sides over an intelligence finding which should be nonpartisan.”

Iran’s efforts on the cyber front, using tools on social media to send messages, could also sway the results of the November election or at least make Americans question the integrity of the American democratic process. And Ben Taleblu said Thursday night’s debate and the previous debate are great opportunities for that and that social media sites are a new virtual battlefield for Iran to fight against America.

“What we’re seeing in cyberspace by Iran right now and also in social media by Iran right now is really in many ways an emulation of their highly successful proxy strategy that we’ve seen in the Middle East for so long,” he said.

“That strategy is to still strike, to still land blows, but to do so from a distance and to do so while masking or disguising its hand. So, we know in Iraq they have the Shia militia, in Lebanon, they have Lebanese Hezbollah,” he said. “Here, right now, what Iran has done in the past two years is amplify false narratives, use bots, impersonate accounts, spoof accounts on social media platforms that are quite diverse platforms, like Twitter, for instance, to inject their kind of vitriol and sense and suss out our partisan cleavages which could lead ultimately to an accommodationist policy towards Iran.”

Iran, like Russia, can benefit from the chaos

Iran, like Russia has in the past, saw an already divided America and saw it as the perfect opportunity to strike. The reaction by public officials and Twitter debates that immediately followed the DNI’s announcement showed just that. The effort by Iran has been ongoing, however. In fact, in recent months, Iran has already used the tragic killing of George Floyd and the subsequent riots and protests to present America as an unstable power to the world .

“Now, again, sort of like Russia, they benefit from this immediate chaos and you know authoritarian adversaries have a long history of being able to actually point at U.S. domestic issues whether real or perceived and try to use them against America, which they actually see as the democracy being a tool in our national security arsenal to promote. Key point, important example, during our own civil rights movement here in the 1960s, the Soviet Union often pointed to that as proof America was an imperial, racist power to thwart America’s foreign policy goals abroad. Lest we forget, last month at the UNGA Iran fully cognizant of the eruption of social protests and unrest over George Floyd and the BLM movement, likened Iran and other nations to George Floyd’s suffering, something which is reprehensible because Iran habitually actually kills its own citizens, ethnic minorities and engages in sham trials, in show trials and as of last November and we’re coming up on the one year anniversary of this, Iran violently suppressed protests touched off by change in oil subsidies.”

“So, really, Iran should not be talking about this, Iran definitely feels comfortable living in a glass house and throwing stones. More importantly, as they see Americans more willing to put party or particular ideology over country, they’re going to suss out those things so too will their partners, which are Russia and China, countries the U.S. has great competition with. So, I would caution anyone, be they analysts, lay voters, U.S. government officials, elected officials, company executives, tech companies to be very very careful moving ahead…”

“This evening, October 22, there’s gonna be another presidential debate. If you remember the last one, just a few weeks ago, Twitter had to remove I think the press had reported up to 130 accounts tied to Iran that were aimed at inhibiting public discourse or hurting the public debate related to a presidential debate. I’m sure they’re going to be trying to do the same thing again this evening and throughout what’s left of our election cycle.”

“Right now, you’ve seen Iran have a debate within itself that if it pushes Trump too far will he escalate in a campaign year or will he absorb this escalation because he doesn’t want to get the U.S. into a war in the campaign year?”

Tougher Sanctions On Iran

The Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy has been successful in straining Iran’s nefarious operations and has proven even more effective than a decade of multilateral sanctions, which is something Iranian officials have admitted to time and time again, Ben Taleblu told me.

“With the U.S. restoring those tough sanctions that you mentioned and consistently adding to them for the period of mid-2018 to mid-2019 that got Tehran to change course,” Ben Taleblu emphasized. “Tehran realized that American unilateral sanctions have been actually tougher in record time than a decade of multilateral sanctions. So that has led to Tehran to engage in the escalation that we saw last summer.”

“So, Iran is trying to get the U.S. to swerve but it’s trying to get the U.S. to swerve in a way that doesn’t invite massive retaliation and the kind of information warfare and cyber hacking and cyber espionage and cyber-enabled economic warfare that Tehran has been engaging in is totally consistent with that policy of striking blows, isolating yourself, and trying to get your adversary not to respond. So Iran wants America to absorb, not only all this escalation but to absorb these blows it’s trying to land in our own social media platforms and against our election.”

“Sustained pressure can actually get Iran to change course.”

He continued, “Last year, in 2019, four times Iranian officials compared the American sanctions policy under Trump to being more devastating than that bloody eight-year war. But, if that bloody eight-year war got Iran to change course, then how come these sanctions, which don’t require the U.S. to fire a single shot, aren’t a good enough foreign policy tool to get Iran to change course. With immense respect to the former Vice President and the Presidential contender Joe Biden, I think that it’s a bit naive to say that if Iran comes back into compliance, then we’ll come into compliance. Because the question is what tool will Washington use if war is off the table, if sanctions relief that is premature pallets of cash like you’re predecessor is a bad idea is off the table and sanctions are off the table. How are you going to get Iran to change course?”

You can follow Jennie S. Taer on Twitter @JennieSTaer

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EXCLUSIVE: Former Trump appointee explains an ‘America First Strategy’ in the ME

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Screen Shot 2024 03 13 at 9.50.09 AM
Photo: Israeli Government

The author interviewed Ellie Cohanim, one of the authors of the new book: “An America First Approach to US National Security.” Ellie is the former U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism under the Trump administration. She is currently a Senior Fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum focusing on Iran, Israel, and global antisemitism, and is a national security contributor for the Christian Broadcasting Network. In 2021, Ellie launched and hosted for Jewish News Syndicate 30 plus episodes of the show “Global Perspectives with Ellie Cohanim.” Ellie spent 15 years in media and NGO management before serving in the public sector. How would you define an “America First” strategy in the Middle East?

Cohanim: An America First strategy in the Middle East would seek to advance American national security interests in that region, while maintaining our status as THE global superpower. To do that, the US would ensure that our principal allies in the region, countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, are economically and militarily strong, and that our adversaries in the region are deterred.

Postal: How has the United States’ standing in the Middle East differed between the Trump and Biden administrations?

Cohanim: Under President Trump, for four years we had peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. Under President Biden, in just three tumultuous years there has been war in the region, which holds the potential for becoming a regional conflict and even a nuclear confrontation. Meanwhile, the US’ status in the region and the world has diminished due to Biden’s disastrous mishandling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, his emboldening of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his weak response to Iranian attacks on our personnel and assets in the region. 

 

Postal: Do you think the United States and Israel are/were in a stronger position to deter Iran’s nuclear and territorial ambitions in Biden or Trump’s administration?

Cohanim: America’s position of strength has not changed under either administration vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has changed is our Iran policy. Under President Trump’s administration, the US contained and constrained Tehran. Trump applied a “Maximum Pressure” sanctions campaign which left the Iranian Regime with only $4 billion in accessible foreign currency reserves by the end of his term, giving the Iranians less cash and less ability to fund their terror proxies and their nuclear program, and Trump eliminated Qassem Soleimani. While all President Biden needed to do was to continue implementing such successful policies, his administration instead did the exact opposite.  Under the Biden administration, Israel, our leading ally in the region, was attacked for the first time directly from Iranian soil. This was an unprecedented escalatory attack by the Iranian regime, and could only happen under the Biden administration.

Postal: In your chapter of the book, you discuss the weakening of US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia under the Biden administration. How has the Biden administration affected the likelihood of future normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and deals between Israel and other Muslim countries (i.e., new Abraham Accords)?

Cohanim: The good news is that the Abraham Accords have withstood the test of multiple Hamas provocations against Israel, and now the current war. Despite numerous claims from the Biden administration regarding “successful” efforts to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, I do not think that the Biden administration will be able to clinch such a deal. In the Middle East, people have a long memory. Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has not forgotten President Biden’s snub when he first came into office, and Biden’s incredibly poorly advised behavior towards the Crown Prince when he made his first visit to the Kingdom as president. The last thing the Crown Prince wants is to hand Biden his first foreign policy success with a Rose Garden peace deal ceremony. So, I do not believe President Biden can broker Saudi/Israeli normalization.

However, I am also convinced that it is a matter of “when” and not “if” such a peace deal will happen between those two countries, as it serves both of their interests to make such a deal. The Saudis understand better than anyone that it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that threatens the Kingdom’s security and stability, not Israel.

Postal: What do you think of the Biden administration’s latest statements withholding arms to Israel?

Cohanim: President Biden will go down in history for his abject moral failure in not standing by Israel while she fights a five-front war. Biden has shown his despicable personality for trying to keep his anti-Israel arms embargo concealed until he could first deliver a speech on the Holocaust. Biden’s behavior is despicable on so many levels.

Ultimately, Biden is betraying the American people. He came into office presenting himself as a “centrist Democrat,” but has proven repeatedly to be beholden to the radical, extremist, pro-Hamas wing of his party.

Postal: How does the Biden administration’s support of a Palestinian state differ from the Trump administration’s support of a Palestinian state under its Peace to Prosperity framework?

Cohanim: The Biden administration stated that they will “unilaterally recognize” a Palestinian state. What the borders of that state are and who would lead it, nobody knows. 

The Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” was a detailed plan that was premised on the realities on the ground in Israel. The plan required that the Palestinians reach benchmarks proving a real desire to live in peace with their Israeli neighbors. It included over $50 billion in investment in the region, which would have been a road to prosperity for all. Perhaps most significantly, the Palestinian state envisioned under the Trump plan would have been demilitarized, the wisdom of which could not be more clear following the October 7 massacre and attack.

The author would like to thank Ellie Cohanim for participating in this interview.

 

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