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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

US launches war of words against Iran

Senior official in Tehran says US had sought to undermine Islamic republic since 1979

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on 'After the Deal - A New Iran Strategy', at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2018. EPA
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on 'After the Deal - A New Iran Strategy', at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2018. EPA

The US government has launched a campaign of speeches and online communication meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran to end its nuclear programme and its support of militant groups, US officials said.

More than half a dozen current and former officials said the campaign, supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, is meant to work in concert with US President Donald Trump's push to throttle Iran's economy by re-imposing sanctions. The drive has intensified since Mr Trump pulled the US on May 8 from a 2015 seven-nation deal to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The officials said the campaign paints Iranian leaders in a harsh light, at times using information that is exaggerated or contradicts other official pronouncements, including comments by previous US administrations.

The White House declined to comment on the campaign. The State Department also declined to comment on the campaign specifically, including on Mr Pompeo's role.

A senior Iranian official dismissed the campaign, saying the United States had sought in vain to undermine the government since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"Their efforts will fail again," the official said.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Mr Trump against provoking his country.

Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency quoted Mr Rouhani as warning Mr Trump on Sunday: "Do not play with the lion's tail or else you will regret it."

However, the Iranian leader suggested peace was still possible.

"America must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all of peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars," he said.

A review of the State Department's Farsi-language Twitter account and its ShareAmerica website - which describes itself as a platform to spark debate on democracy and other issues - shows a number of posts critical of Tehran over the last month.

Iran is the subject of four of the top five items on the website's Countering Violent Extremism section. They include headlines such as "This Iranian airline helps spread violence and terror".

In social media posts and speeches, Mr Pompeo appeals directly to Iranians, the Iranian diaspora and a global audience.

On June 21, Mr Pompeo tweeted out graphics headlined: "Protests in Iran are growing", "Iranian people deserve respect for their human rights", and "Iran's Revolutionary Guard gets rich while Iranian families struggle." The tweets were translated into Farsi and posted on the ShareAmerica website.

On Sunday, Mr Pompeo will give a speech titled Supporting Iranian Voices in California and meet Iranian Americans, many of whom fled the Islamic revolution that toppled the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

"Let me be clear, we are not seeking regime change. We are seeking changes in the Iranian government's behaviour," a State Department official said in response to questions from Reuters.

"We know we are driving Iran to make some hard choices. Either they can change their ways or find it increasingly difficult to engage in their malign activities," said the official. "And we believe we are offering a very positive vision for what we could achieve and what the Iranian people could have."

Some of the information the government has disseminated is incomplete or distorted, the current and former officials said.

In a May 21 speech in Washington, Mr Pompeo said Iranian leaders refused to spend funds freed by the nuclear weapons deal on their people, using it instead for proxy wars and corruption.

By contrast, in March testimony before a US Senate committee, the US Defence Intelligence Agency director, Robert Ashley, said social and economic expenditures remained Tehran's near-term priority despite some spending on security forces.

Mr Pompeo also accused "Iran-sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists" of infiltrating Iraqi security forces and jeopardizing Iraq's sovereignty throughout the period of the nuclear agreement.

While opponents accuse the Iran-backed Iraqi militias of human rights abuses against civilians, which the groups deny, the militias fought ISIS extremists and helped keep them from overrunning Iraq in 2014 after Iraq's army collapsed. They then aided the US-backed offensives that liberated ISIS-held territory and some units are being incorporated into Iraqi security forces.

The State Department official acknowledged that the militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, are by law part of Iraq's security forces and played a role in countering ISIS in 2014.

"We understand, however, that some of the undisciplined Popular Mobilisation Forces are especially close to Iran, responsive to Iran’s directives, and have a history of criminal activity and terrorism," the official said. "Those groups are as problematic for the Iraqi state as they are for us."

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Experts said the administration also is exaggerating the closeness of the relationship between Iran and Afghanistan's Taliban militants and Al Qaeda by calling them co-conspirators.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about the accuracy of the information it was disseminating.

It is too early to determine the impact of the administration's communications campaign, US officials said.

Washington has long called Iran the world's leading "state sponsor of terrorism" because Tehran arms and funds proxy militant groups like Lebanese Hezbollah. Iranian leaders urge the destruction of the United States and Israel, and Iranian proxies have killed hundreds of US soldiers and diplomats since the Islamic Revolution.

That record provided previous administrations with ample material for waging their own public relations campaigns against Tehran, including trying to communicate directly with the Iranian people.

President George W Bush's administration established Radio Farda, a US-funded broadcaster that beams into Iran what it says is "objective and accurate news and information to counter state censorship and ideology-based media coverage". The Obama administration launched a Farsi Twitter account - @USAdarFarsi – in 2011.

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