The revelations by FBI and national intelligence officials Wednesday alleging that Iran sent threatening emails to intimidate Florida Democrats by posing as the Proud Boys, a far-right American extremist group, raises the question of just what Iran's motives are. We should start our answer by dispelling the possibility floated by National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe: that Iran wanted to damage President Donald Trump.
Iran isn’t willing to risk a war with the United States, opting instead for instances of low-intensity retaliation — in this case one that Americans are particularly sensitive to.
There's no Iran-approved candidate. As Americans, we tend to look at things through our domestic lenses, which show clear distinctions between the contestants. Iran, however, sees no such distinction, and it is skeptical of the U.S. in general.
Iran's skepticism extended to the nuclear deal, which the Obama administration negotiated in 2015 to limit Iran's nuclear program. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, voiced his disapproval at working with the "stubborn, cheating, bad-dealing party." There's little reason to think Iran would see its deliverance in Joe Biden, the vice president in that administration.
Analysts and officials promote another reason for Tehran to prefer Biden that is, at first glance, more plausible: Iran is hoping the U.S. election will provide relief from the crippling sanctions Trump has imposed, including a new round this month. Biden called for sanctions relief in April, and Iranian officials reportedly concluded that the nuclear deal's revival hinged on his election.
But if Iran's leadership was truly trying to help Biden by falsely linking Trump to voter intimidation, it would make sense only if Iran also signaled that it envisioned a return to diplomacy. Otherwise, it would be nonsensical for Iranian leaders to support a candidate on the premise that he would engage in diplomacy.
Instead, Iran is signaling that U.S.-Iranian relations will remain unchanged regardless of who wins. Khamenei has already ruled out nuclear negotiations with the U.S. altogether. More recently, Iranian state media reported that Iran sees "no difference" with regard to the candidates, and on Telegram, a popular social media app in Iran, a channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed that pressure against Iran would continue regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins.
Indeed, internal forces in Iran thrive on anti-Americanism. The Iranian military and intelligence bodies, which are made up mostly of hard-liners, use America as a political foil within Iran. The strategy has paid dividends in recent elections, with the hard-liners decisively winning parliamentary elections following the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. It would be costly to any political faction in Iran to trust the U.S. again, just as it was for President Hassan Rouhani, so it's unlikely that even moderates would tie their political fortunes to an American lifeline.
So what's the better explanation for Iran's alleged attempts at election interference? It's the broader context of U.S.-Iran tensions, which aren't likely to diminish any time soon regardless of who's in power in January.
A series of cyber-related arrest warrants were issued for alleged Iranian hackers by the U.S. Justice Department in September, along with new Treasury sanctions against Iranian agents. In October, the Justice Department seized internet domains owned by the Revolutionary Guard and its Iraqi proxies. This follows the recent U.S. attempts to unilaterally enforce arms restrictions on Iran, which prevented Iran from buying conventional weapons like tanks or missile systems, and to sanction what are among the last remaining financial institutions in Iran.
Iran's reported election interference is a reaction to that wider escalation. Iran isn't willing to risk a war with the U.S., opting instead for instances of low-intensity retaliation — in this case, one that Americans are particularly sensitive to. Beyond the ease of conducting this disinformation operation, Iran likes to drive the narrative that the U.S. will collapse and that U.S. elections are fraudulent.
Lamentably, the U.S. political climate presents an opportunity for that narrative to have appeal. Using the Proud Boys to foment discord also corrodes American credibility internationally by showing the fragility of American democracy in the face of illiberal domestic actors.
This latter point is important to Iran's long-term strategy, since Iran sees its diplomatic engagement with Europe and China as more realistic and reliable than any rapprochement with the U.S. The international ramifications of U.S. extremists' influencing elections would help deepen existing divides between the U.S. and its European allies.
The United States' European partners have already denounced American sanctions against Iran, and the E.U.-U.S. relationship is based in large part on shared democratic values — values that the Proud Boys stand against. Iran's email disinformation isn't about influencing the outcome of the U.S. election; it's about optics. The idea of extremists' manipulating democracy toward their desired end is intolerable to Americans. Likewise, the idea of an undemocratic superpower is disconcerting to U.S. allies. Iran only amplified the existing fears that Americans and their friends abroad already harbor.
Thankfully, Iran's Proud Boys emails, while disconcerting, don't threaten American democracy. Only our own loss of confidence in voting would do that. The remedy is at the ballot box, because it confirms the resilience of our democracy and our continued faith in it.