image Photo: Reuters

US sanctions Iran for election interference

The United States has imposed several rounds of fresh sanctions on Iran over the past week. Some of the organizations were targeted in connection with an alleged disinformation campaign targeting the 2020 election, while others were key actors in Iran’s oil sector accused of supporting the elite foreign paramilitary and espionage Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF).

“The United States will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections. The whole of the U.S. government is using all the tools at our disposal to target those who attempt to interfere in our democratic process,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a press release issued 23 October.

“For far too long, the Iranian regime has used its state propaganda machine to lie to the Iranian people and fan the flames of hatred against the United States. Iran has now deployed some of the same propaganda and media infrastructure in an attempt to undermine elections in the United States,” said Pompeo.

While the IRGC and IRGC-QF had already previously been sanctioned as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, three of the Iranian entities were designated for the first time: the Bayan Rasaneh Gostar Institute, Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM). Pompeo accused all three of having “engaged directly or indirectly in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in, foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, or are owned or controlled by entities engaged in such activity.”

“Through covert media operations, including targeted disinformation efforts directed at U.S. voters, the Iranian regime has demonstrated its intent is to undermine American elections. Over the past few months, Bayan Gostar, a front company for IRGC-QF propaganda efforts, has actively planned influence operations involving U.S. elections. IRTVU and IUVM appear to be propaganda arms of the Iranian regime that assisted in these efforts,” the top American diplomat elaborated.

At the same time, Washington also added “known members of the IRGC’s cyber operations unit” to its Terrorist Watch List and database, which will ban travel by those individuals and their families to the United States. “Those with the technical and educational skills required to carry out malicious cyber acts should take note; we will hold accountable those who join the IRGC and carry out malicious cyber activities,” warned Pompeo, adding that, “Talented Iranians should use their skills to promote peace and foster prosperity for their families, not assist the Islamic Republic in conducting its oppression at home and spreading terror abroad.”

The U.S. action came just one day after Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe revealed in a bombshell announcement that Iran and Russia had “taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.” Subsequently, the U.S. Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on a Russian government-backed Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (TsNIIKhM) for “building customized tools that enabled the attack” on an unidentified petrochemical facility in the Middle East in 2017. Analysts believe the step was taken as part of a U.S. warning for hostile powers to not interfere in its 3 November elections, which are now less than one week away.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated after U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and began reimposing U.S. sanctions that had been eased in exchange for curbs on Iranian nuclear development.

Washington also slapped fresh sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s oil sector, including the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum, as part of its “maximum pressure campaign” on Tehran.

“The regime in Iran uses the petroleum sector to fund the destabilizing activities of the IRGC-QF,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a 26 October statement.

“Instead of using its natural resource wealth to improve living conditions for the Iranian people, the Iranian regime prefers to pawn its oil to fund the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and support its terror proxies as they sow chaos and destruction around the Middle East. We will not let that happen,” U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo said in a separate statement.

Pompeo detailed that the Executive Order 13224 imposes sanctions “on several Iranian government entities and state-owned enterprises involved in Iran’s energy sector that have provided financial support to the IRGC-QF. We are also sanctioning several related individuals, entities, and vessels. These include sanctions on Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum and Minister of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company, the National Iranian Tanker Company, and 21 other individuals, entities, and vessels related to the provision of support or services to the IRGC-QF.”

“These designations are an important step in the maximum pressure campaign to limit the Iranian regime’s ability to threaten its neighbors and destabilize the Middle East. Our action will further restrict the scope of activities permitted with the designated individuals and entities, further limiting the Iranian regime’s access to funds it uses to enrich itself and support terrorism around the world.”

Iranian oil exports have shrunk from over 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) since the U.S. pulled out of the JCPOA, but rose sharply in September according to three assessments based on tanker tracking; seen as a lifeline to the Islamic Republic and its collapsing economy.

Pompeo warned that, “The few remaining buyers of Iranian crude oil should know that they are helping to fund Iran’s malign activity across the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.”

The U.S. Secretary then underscored that, “the maximum pressure campaign targets the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people. That is why, in parallel with these designations, the Department of the Treasury updated a general license related to humanitarian trade and issued associated guidance. The Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims are its own people, and the United States supports the Iranian people’s ability to access humanitarian goods.”

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh responded on Twitter saying that the new U.S. sanctions against him and his colleagues “are a passive reaction to Washington’s failure to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero.”

“The era of unilateralism is over in the world. Iran’s oil industry will not be hamstrung,” Zanganeh added, insisting that the Islamic Republic’s oil industry will not yield to pressure from the United States.

In related developments, the U.S. welcomed Estonia’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran’s proxy, the terrorist group Hezbollah. Secretary Pompeo released a statement that, “Estonia is sending a strong message in Europe, and within the European Union, by prohibiting Hizballah affiliates from entering its territory, mitigating the threat Hizballah poses to the security of Estonia and international partners.”

Estonia, a member of the United Nations Security Council, became the fifth European Union state in 2020 to ban Hezbollah in its entirety.

“Like the actions taken by Germany, Lithuania, and Kosovo, and the commitment by Serbia earlier this year, Estonia’s decisive action recognizes that Hizballah is a terrorist organization in its entirety and poses a significant threat in Europe and elsewhere,” said Pompeo, adding that, “ We urge all countries to take whatever action they can to prevent Hizballah operatives, recruiters, and financiers from operating in their territories.”

The EU has banned only the military wing of the Lebanese Shi’ite terror group, even though Hezbollah itself does not recognize a division from its political operations.