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As Their Ties Strengthen, Will Iran and Russia Coordinate Their Influence Campaigns?

In mid-March 2021, the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) on “Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections.”  The assessment detailed hostile state and non-state actors’ multi-faceted information-enabled activities designed to influence the election directly or indirectly by targeting candidates, political parties, media, or the populace. Unsurprisingly, the ICA identified Russia as the primary perpetrator of conducting what it called “pro-Trump” operations.  Per the March 2021 ICA, building on the success of its efforts during the 2016 elections, Russia’s operations focused on sowing social discord, “denigrating Biden and the Democratic Party,” and undermining confidence in the electoral process.  Moscow purposefully avoided tampering with election infrastructure that might manipulate votes or call into question the integrity of votes cast.

The 2021 ICA also identified Iran as the second major U.S. adversary actively conducting influence campaigns during the 2020 elections.  However, unlike its strategic ally Russia, Iran sought to undermine Trump’s candidacy, due to Tehran’s perception that under Trump the United States sought to get Iran in line. Iran mirrored some of Russia’s operations, exploiting social issues via social media and propaganda to divide the United States and create social confusion and uncertainty.  Tehran too also avoided targeting election infrastructure.  What the 2021 ICA suggests is that both Moscow and Tehran believed it worth the effort to execute these campaigns to obtain their strategic goals by exploiting the United States’ freedom to publish and distribute information.  Based on the political divisiveness that has arguably increased and exacerbated in the United States since the 2016 election, these ongoing targeted information-enabled operations have had a resounding success.  In an environment where information may be “open” but as some suggest is ultimately censored to skew toward a particular party or issue, adversaries have proven that the weaponization of information is cost-effective, scalable, and easy to reach a wide audience.

While strikingly similar in execution, there is no evidence that Tehran and Moscow coordinated their two influence campaigns, despite the 2021 ICA assessing that leadership in both governments knew of and even authorized their execution.  Regardless, despite backing different political candidates, both Iran and Russia achieved the same long-term objectives.  Obviously, Tehran carefully observed the activities Russia conducted during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and implemented them for their own behalf in 2020.  Iranian actors used social media platforms, email, and exploited public-facing election websites – all activities Russia executed in 2016. The fact that two independent campaigns achieved so much success begs the question of what could happen if the two countries conduct a coordinated effort against the United States, not only during an election cycle but during geopolitical tensions?

Iran and Russia have a relationship that has wavered between strong mutual support and contention.  Currently, the two have drawn closer having the same strategic goal – offsetting U.S. influence in the Middle East.  Russia provides Iran with significant economic and military support. With sanctions applied against Iran by the United States and Europe, Tehran has forged closer economic ties with Moscow, highlighted by Iran’s joining a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Russia is prominent member. In the post-Iran nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there has been increased engagement between political and military officials of both countries.  Further bringing Iranian and Russian militaries together are a formal agreement and cooperation on Syria, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s interest in expanding into the Caucasus, and recent joint naval maritime exercises. This continued strengthening of ties between two of the United States most ardent adversaries has drawn concern from the Pentagon that views these moves as a way to counter and contain U.S. influence in the Middle East.  The two governments are currently working on drafting a new long-term strategic treaty before the current one expires in March 2022.  Very likely any updates will reflect the shared current geopolitical situation.

However, another way closer collaboration between Iran and Russia that gives pause for concern needs to be framed in the context of the 2020 election influence campaigns.  Both countries are powers in cyberspace having executed global destructive and disruptive attacks, as described in U.S. Department of Justice indictments.  In January 2021, Tehran and Moscow garnered attention when they signed an official agreement on “cooperation in ensuring information security.”  The largely defensive accord focused on “cybersecurity cooperation, technology transfer, combined training, and coordination of multilateral forums.” The timing of the agreement comes at a time when the Department of Justice has already levied several indictments against actors associated with both of these governments, and after the United States identified Russia as being behind the extensive and far reaching SolarWinds breach.  What’s more, it raises the question if these actors will seek to expand their cooperation in cyberspace beyond defense and intelligence-sharing, and if so, to what extent.

At this time, it is unlikely that Tehran and Moscow are prepared to conduct joint disruptive cyber attacks, as that would require a more forthright engagement that would require both parties to reveal at least some sensitive tradecraft of their most clandestine operations. Even though they are strategic partners, Tehran and Moscow have different interests and objectives that sometimes can come into conflict. However, as evidenced in the 2020 U.S. elections, there may be areas where the two can cooperate that do not require sharing sensitive tools, infrastructure, or techniques. The 2017 ICAassessed Russia would apply a lessons-learned perspective that would shape its future efforts targeting elections.  Based on the 2021 ICA assessment, Russia re-engaged those tactics that it believed worked to its advantage, only this time, it narrowed its messaging campaign that focused on undermining one candidate and on the legitimacy of the election process writ large.  Iran activities replicated many of the activities Russia executed in 2016 using social media and social issues to be divisive in tandem with trying to undercut Trump’s candidacy. Per the 2021 ICA, Iran demonstrated the capability to execute an aggressive, highly targeted influence campaign, which likely did not escape Russia’s observations.

As any nation’s election cycle is generally pre-determined, there is an opportunity for Tehran and Moscow to collaborate, or at least coordinate, on future influence campaigns against selected governments. Even though it appears that both Iran and Russia “preferred” one of the U.S. presidential candidates, their larger goals of creating public uncertainty, sowing social division, and undermining voter confidence overlapped.  What’s more, these are the areas that garnered the most success and from which the U.S. populace still suffers with no sign of abatement in the foreseeable future.  Therefore, any antagonist government toward Iran and Russia could fall in the crosshairs of such an information campaign.  Furthermore, since both states have organized and executed them already, they can continually apply a lessons-learned approach to subsequent campaigns, evolving and tailoring them to the nations that they target.

While such activities are considered “interference,” there has not been a punishment meted out thus far that has altered, at least in the case of repeat offender Russia, deterred these behaviors. Social media companies have increased their efforts to monitor the discourse on their channels suspected of coming from adversaries after the 2016 election.  Leading up to the 2020 election, these platforms eliminated many accounts they determined to be fake or affiliated with foreign actors regardless if they engaged in activity targeting the election. However, such actions raise the questions of what constitutes prohibiting free speech, particularly as some social media platforms determine their policies without falling under First Amendment principles. It’s difficult for a free society to take a stand to selectively censor or block the production and dissemination of information simply because it comes from adversarial elements.  Anyone watching political ads or the social media space during this period saw inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle, whether it came from “trolls” or an aggravated legitimate public.  As long as there were no attempts to disrupt the election process, manipulate votes, or prevent voting, it is difficult to claim the promotion of information – whether true or not – is a hostile act or crime.

It remains to be seen if Iran and Russia will collaborate and/or coordinate influence campaigns in the future, though establishing a formal cyber agreement is a good step in that direction.  As progress is made via cyber intelligence-sharing and mutual cyber security engagements, Tehran and Moscow position themselves to build the trust necessary to conduct more integrated information-enabled operations.  More importantly, the cyber agreement provides Tehran and Moscow the basis on which they can harmonize their influence campaigns where their strategic interests align.  This is not to suggest that such harmonization will be an easy task as influence campaigns are composed of more than just social media posts and tweets.  A complex multi-faceted operation as observed in both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections requires calculated planning, target identification, message development, online collaboration, and some way to measure success for both Iran and Russia. This would certainly not be an easy endeavor, but with the right structure in place, such coordination can serve as a force-multiplier of soft-power capability. There is some evidence suggesting that the two may already be loosely coordinating broader disinformation campaigns with respect to COVID-19, but until more evidence surfaces to the contrary, this appears to be less structured as opposed to a joint organized effort created to achieve specific objectives.

But foreign elections are just one possibility for influence campaigns.  There are several geopolitical hot areas that could also elicit various levels of multi-faceted information operations. Regional areas of contention (e.g., the Arctic, Syria, Afghanistan/Central Asia), human rights abuses, and trade disputes are just some topics that can be targeted by influence campaigns.  States can exploit these issues in international fora (e.g., the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Monetary Fund) in order to achieve specific results like garnering support for their position, altering narratives, or deflecting blame.  One key hot button issue that could receive an influence campaign is Iran’s nuclear development.  As the U.S. seeks to re-engage Iran on its nuclear development, Tehran has maintained a firm stance that it will not come to the table unless sanctions are taken off the table.  A targeted Iran-as-victim messaging effort would exploit the former U.S. administration’s draconian policies toward Iran on this issue and draw in sympathetic governments to offset pressure on the international stage.  A public opinion win that pressured U.S. sanction concession would be a real win, and by extension, put the U.S. on the defensive.  After being extensively targeted in two major influence campaigns, the United States must not only design and develop a counter to these activities, but also create a messaging strategy that focuses on educating its constituency and thereby neutralizing influencing effects against audiences.  Like all things associated with the digital space, these activities must be ongoing and accessible, making people more informed and resilient to foreign persuasion.

Influence campaigns will ultimately increase and escalate in the level of activity, especially since there is no legitimate way to counter them without assuming strict censorship and information control, two activities that run contrary to democratic principles. What’s more disconcerting is that these campaigns are quickly becoming another asymmetric tool for states seeking to challenge larger, stronger adversaries while avoiding direct military conflict.  As a result of the successes of influence campaigns against U.S. elections, 2021 will see smaller, less technically capable states increasingly leverage this low-cost, highly-effective tool to affect public perception, decision-making, and opinion formulation in support of their interests.

Note: We provide more context on the changing geopolitical dynamic and what it means for corporate strategy in our post on: C-Suite Considerations Regarding Current Geopolitical Tensions.

 

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.