'Actors tied to Iran’s government pose as activists online'

White House: Iran is funding, emboldening anti-Israel protests in US to sow discord

Press secretary, intel chief say that while demonstrators are acting in good faith, they can still be exploited by foreign actors; actions said set to intensify as election nears

Anti-Israel protesters block the parade route during the NYC Pride March, June 30, 2024, in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Illustrative: Anti-Israel protesters block the parade route during the NYC Pride March, June 30, 2024, in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

The White House accused Tehran on Tuesday of trying to take advantage of a wave of anti-Israel protests in the United States and described such behavior as unacceptable, following a warning by the top US intelligence official that Iran was trying to stoke discord in American society.

The warning, issued earlier on Tuesday by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, said actors tied to Iran’s government had posed as activists online, sought to encourage protests regarding the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and even provided demonstrators with financial support.

The statements are likely to embolden those calling for American authorities to take a harder line on the Gaza war protests that swept across college campuses toward the end of the spring semester and that have continued at other locations into the summer.

They also could expose the administration to criticism by defenders of those demonstrations, who may argue that the government is dismissing them as inauthentic.

The White House and Haines both sought to address this potential pushback in their Tuesday statements.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said freedom of expression was vital to American democracy, but the government also had a duty to warn citizens about foreign influence operations.

“Americans across the political spectrum, acting in good faith, have sought to express their own independent views on the conflict in Gaza. The freedom to express diverse views when done peacefully is essential to our democracy,” she said.

“At the same time, the US government has a duty to warn Americans about foreign malign influences. … We will continue to expose attempts to undermine our democracy in our society just as we are today,” Jean-Pierre added.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a press briefing at the White House, July 9, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Haines, in her earlier statement, said: “We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests and even providing financial support to protesters.

“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 clarified.

“But it is also important to warn of foreign actors who seek to exploit our debate for their own purposes,” the US intel chief added, urging Americans to remain vigilant when engaging with online actors they don’t know.

In May, Haines warned in congressional testimony that Iran was becoming increasingly aggressive in its efforts to undermine confidence in American democratic institutions, particularly in the lead-up to presidential and congressional elections.

“They continue to adapt their cyber and influence activities, using social media platforms and issuing threats. It is likely they will continue to rely on their intelligence services in these efforts, as well as Iran-based online influencers, to promote their narratives,” Haines said on Tuesday.

In this July 27, 2021, file photo, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines introduces President Joe Biden during a visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in McLean, Virginia. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Tehran had no immediate comment.

An official with the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence said the warning on Iran showed how countries tried to take advantage of controversial issues in the run-up to elections, both to embarrass the US and “inflame social division.”

The official, who asked not to be named, said Iran had a longstanding interest in exploiting US political and social tensions, including through social media.

“In particular, we are monitoring Iranian actors who are seeking to exacerbate tensions on the Israel-Gaza conflict,” the official said.

The statements came one day after US Vice President Kamala Harris expressed some praise for the young pro-Palestinian protesters.

“They are showing exactly what the human emotion should be, as a response to Gaza. There are things some of the protesters are saying that I absolutely reject, so I don’t mean to wholesale endorse their points. But we have to navigate it. I understand the emotion behind it,” Harris told The Nation in an interview.

US President Joe Biden (L) and US Vice President Kamala Harris hold hands and gesture as they watch the Independence Day fireworks display from the Truman Balcony of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 4, 2024. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP)

US President Joe Biden has at times been more critical of the protests.

“There’s a right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos,” Biden said in a May White House speech about the demonstrations.

“Destroying property is not a peaceful protest — it’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations — none of this is a peaceful protest,” he asserted, referring to the range of actions taken by anti-Israel protesters at Columbia University, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles, and other schools.

“There should be no place on any campus — no place in America — for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students,” he said, referring to widespread documentation of antisemitic and pro-terror expressions during the protests, before subsequently condemning all forms of discrimination.

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