2 Iranians charged with threatening US voters in 2020 election; 4 others blacklisted

US officials say goal of operation wasn’t to change outcome but to sow confusion, create perception results couldn’t be trusted, though Treasury says it foiled effort

Seyyed Kazeemi and Sajjad Kashian. (US Treasury Department)
Seyyed Kazeemi and Sajjad Kashian. (US Treasury Department)

WASHINGTON — Two suspected Iranian computer hackers have been charged with election interference, accused of trying to intimidate American voters ahead of last year’s United States presidential election by sending threatening messages and spreading disinformation.

The effort attracted publicity in the run-up to the November 2020 election, when law enforcement and intelligence officials held an unusual evening news conference to accuse Iran of orchestrating an email campaign aimed at intimidating Democratic voters in battleground states so they would vote for then-US president Donald Trump.

That included a message that purported to be from a far-right group, the Proud Boys, that threatened Democratic voters with physical harm if they didn’t change their party affiliation and vote for Trump.

US officials say the goal of the operation was not to change the results of the election but to sow confusion and discord and create the perception that the results could not be trusted.

The indictment, filed in the federal court in Manhattan and unsealed on Thursday, accuses Iranian nationals named Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian of helping orchestrate the scheme. The US Treasury Department also announced sanctions against the men, four of their colleagues and the company they worked for.

The company, Emennet Pasargad, was previously designated by the US Treasury Department under its former name, Net Peygard Samavat Company, for providing assistance to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Electronic Warfare and Cyber Defense Organization (IRGC-EWCD).

Emennet “rebranded itself to evade US sanctions and continue its disruptive cyber operations against the United States,” the US statement said.

Also designated along with Kazemi and Kashian were Emennet’s manager Mohammad Bagher Shirinkar and board of directors members Mostafa Sarmadi, Seyyed Mehdi Hashemi Toghroljerdi, and Hosein Akbari Nodeh

The defendants are not in custody and are believed to still be in Iran, but officials hope the indictment and accompanying sanctions will restrict their ability to travel.

“This indictment details how two Iran-based actors waged a targeted, coordinated campaign to erode confidence in the integrity of the US electoral system and to sow discord among Americans,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said in a statement. “The allegations illustrate how foreign disinformation campaigns operate and seek to influence the American public.”

In its own statement regarding the sanctioning of the six Iranian nationals and their company entity, the US Treasury Department said “these Iranian actors obtained or attempted to obtain US voter information from US state election websites, sent threatening emails to intimidate voters, and crafted and disseminated disinformation pertaining to the election and election security.”

The individuals also illicitly accessed content management accounts of several online US media networks, though the FBI managed to keep them from leveraging the unauthorized access, the US Treasury Department said.

“Today’s action underscores the US government’s commitment to hold state-sponsored actors accountable for attempting to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and US institutions,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo.

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