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FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

U.S. director of national intelligence says Iran is influencing and funding Gaza war protests

‘We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters,’ Avril Haines said

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Anti-Israel demonstrators leave a statue covered in graffiti in Lafayette Park across from the White House.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Tuesday that the Iranian government has both provoked and provided funding for protests in the U.S. over the war in Gaza, suggesting that connections between U.S.-based demonstrators and the Iranian regime and its affiliates go deeper than previously believed.

“In recent weeks, Iranian government actors have sought to opportunistically take advantage of ongoing protests regarding the war in Gaza, using a playbook we’ve seen other actors use over the years,” Haines said in a public statement. “We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters.”

The statement doesn’t specifically say which protests have been influenced by Iranian actors, how much funding has been provided and for what purpose, when the influence operations began or what the viewpoints of the protesters in question have been. Other foreign adversaries, like Russia, have played both sides of U.S.-based protests in the interest of inciting domestic division and conflict.

“Americans who are being targeted by this Iranian campaign may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government,” Haines continued. “We urge all Americans to remain vigilant as they engage online with accounts and actors they do not personally know.”

In the statement, Haines broadly offered support for the right to protest and rejected the notion that all of the views being expressed in such protests are inauthentic.

“I want to be clear that I know Americans who participate in protests are, in good faith, expressing their views on the conflict in Gaza — this intelligence does not indicate otherwise,” she said. “Moreover, the freedom to express diverse views, when done peacefully, is essential to our democracy, but it is also important to warn of foreign actors who seek to exploit our debate for their own purposes.”

Haines said that the statement is the first in what will be a series of public updates on foreign influence operations, particularly relating to the 2024 election. In 2020, the Iranian government allegedly posed as members of the far-right Proud Boys, sending threatening emails to swing-state Democrats.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), whose home and office were targeted by anti-Israel demonstrations in the past week, told Jewish Insider that there have long been questions about how and why protest targets have been chosen and where funding for materials — like sirens and professional banners used outside his house — has come from.

Reports that Iran is influencing some of these protests “should give us all concern,” Schneider continued.

He said that publicizing the influence operation was a positive step, and said that the administration also needs to “be following the money, and making sure that we are thwarting the efforts by Iran and others to try to influence this and holding to account those who are literally collaborating with our enemies.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that “it would not surprise me in the least” if the protests were influenced by Iran and said he would investigate the matter further.

McCaul added that attention must also be paid to TikTok and other social media platforms’ role in spreading anti-Israel narratives.

“I’m glad [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s coming to tell Israel’s side of the story though,” he added, referring to the speech the Israeli leader is set to give before a joint session of Congress on July 24. “The younger generation’s just getting brainwashed.”

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