US sanctions Iranian nationals, company for alleged vote meddling

US accuses six Iranians and a cybercompany of trying to undermine confidence in country’s 2020 presidential elections.

US suspicions of Iranian interference in last year's US presidential elections, in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, first surfaced in October 2020 [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

The United States has sanctioned six Iranian nationals and an Iranian cybercompany for “attempting to influence” last year’s US presidential elections.

In a statement on Thursday, the US Treasury Department said “state-sponsored Iranian cyber actors” between August and November 2020 “executed an online operation to intimidate and influence American voters, and to undermine voter confidence and sow discord”.

The department accused the sanctioned individuals and company of disseminating disinformation on social media and sending threatening emails and a fraudulent video that sought to “undermine faith in the election by implying that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots”.

“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,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in the statement.

The sanctions block any assets the individuals and company may have in the US and generally bar Americans from doing business with them.

The move comes a day after American, British and Australian officials warned that hackers linked to the Iranian government have been targeting a “broad range of victims” inside the US, including by deploying ransomware.

The advisory on Wednesday said that in recent months, Iran has exploited computer vulnerabilities exposed by hackers before they can be fixed and targeted entities in the transportation, healthcare and public health sectors.

US President Joe Biden – who defeated former President Donald Trump in the November 3, 2020 vote – has pledged to crack down on hacking and boost the country’s cyberdefences after a string of ransomware incidents.

Earlier this month, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department was “sparing no resource to identify and bring to justice anyone, anywhere” involved in such attacks.

US suspicions about Iranian interference in last year’s election surfaced in October 2020.

At the time, Iran’s foreign ministry rebuffed the allegations as “repetitive, baseless and false”.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran rejects the hackneyed claims and the fabricated, amateurish and deceitful reports from the US regime’s officials, stressing once again that it makes no difference to Tehran which of the two candidates would reach the White House,” the ministry said on Twitter on October 22, just weeks before the election.

The US also announced criminal charges against two of the Iranians it sanctioned, accusing them of targeting voters as well as elected members of Congress and a US media company.

Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi, 24, and Sajjad Kashian 27, are each charged with obtaining confidential US voting information from at least one state election website and conspiring with others to sow disinformation to try to undermine confidence in the election’s integrity.

The indictment alleges the men gained access to an unnamed US media company’s computer network in a plot to disseminate false claims about the election, but their effort was foiled through intervention by the FBI and the company, which the indictment did not identify by name.

As part of their alleged conspiracy, they also sent Facebook messages purporting to be a group of volunteers from the far-right Proud Boys group to Republican members of Congress and members of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign, the indictment alleges.

It also alleges they tried to access voter registration data from 11 state websites, and in one case managed to download data from one state website that contained information about 100,000 of its registered voters.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies