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Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, claims Iranian actors are meddling in our affairs—without providing any evidence.
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, claims Iranian actors are meddling in our affairs—without providing any evidence. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

You Can’t Blame Iran for America’s Anti-Israel Protests

College professors have played a greater part in our domestic strife than Persian cyber-spies.

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On Tuesday, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, dropped a bombshell. In a public statement, she said, “In recent weeks, Iranian government actors have sought to opportunistically take advantage of ongoing protests regarding the war in Gaza.” She added, “We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters.” 

Pro-Gaza protesters being manipulated by Iran’s government? That should be a five-alarm newsgasm. The problem is that Haines has not provided any evidence to support this extraordinary claim. 

In some ways, this is understandable. Intelligence agencies are miserly when it comes to sharing how they know what they know. And if the year were 2016, the spies may have gotten the benefit of the doubt. But it’s 2024 and most Americans still remember the trauma of Russiagate, when a parade of pundits, journalists, and former government officials argued that a handful of Russian online fake personas, WikiLeaks’ hacked Hillary Clinton emails, and Facebook ads swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump. Throughout the panic, unquestioning acceptance of claims from the “intelligence community” fanned the flames. 

The problem with the story was not that Russia hadn’t tried to interfere with the 2016 election. It did. Rather, it was the implicit assumption that American voters were so ill-informed and gullible that many of them were swayed to vote for Trump because of Moscow’s online fakery. 

And this leads back to Iran’s efforts to attempt to influence American politics. In some ways this is nothing new. In 2018, the cyber intelligence firm FireEye Intelligence released a report documenting Iranian fake news sites and their efforts to sway U.S. public opinion. It found that the efforts were amateurish. For example, a number of fake personas were registered with phone numbers that included Iran’s country code. The propaganda itself was crude, such as messages celebrating Quds Day, a holiday invented by Iran’s regime to single out the Palestinian struggle to conquer Jerusalem. 

Haines may be giving the Iranians too much credit. While she acknowledges “Americans who participate in protests are, in good faith, expressing their views on the conflict in Gaza,” she also warns “Americans who are being targeted by this Iranian campaign may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government.” 

The implication is that American supporters of Hamas are the unwitting victims of foreign propaganda. That glosses over a much deeper problem, though. Many of the Americans who block traffic and take over quads on behalf of the terrorists of October 7 are not taking their cues from Persian cyber-spies, but college professors and journalists. For generations these information elites have insisted that Palestinian terror is a legitimate expression of Palestinian dispossession. But the root cause is not foreign disinformation so much as domestic ideology.

Eli Lake is a Free Press columnist and host of The Re-Education podcast. Follow him on X @EliLake. Read his recent piece, “Joe Biden’s Alternative Facts.”

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