In June 2019, the State Department suspended a contract for a counterpropaganda program called the Iran Disinformation Project, widely known by its combative Twitter handle, @IranDisinfo. The project had come under scrutiny because, on Twitter, it was dedicating a significant amount of its output to attacking U.S. critics of President Donald Trump’s Iran policy. Within days of complaints being brought against Iran Disinfo, the project was suspended; by early June, the remainder of the $1.5 million contract had been terminated.
But the State Department did not end all its funding for Iran Disinfo’s implementing organization, the E-Collaborative for Civic Education, or ECCE, which has received nearly $10 million from the U.S. government to operate a number of Iran projects over the past decade. Internal documents obtained by The Intercept show that even after Iran Disinfo’s grant was terminated, State Department officials continued talking and collaborating with the co-founder and president of the ECCE, Mariam Memarsadeghi, seeking to use her other U.S.-funded platforms to distribute Trump administration messaging on Iran. In one document, department officials acknowledged that they continued funding another ECCE project, Tavaana, an online platform for civic education in Iran.
The documents were obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department, with help from Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that advocates against authoritarianism in the U.S. Hundreds of pages of documents offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy and the Trump State Department’s hawkish rhetoric against Iran. Over four years, the policy has resulted in significant suffering in Iran, mostly through the reimposition of crushing economic sanctions, but failed to achieve the administration’s goal of bringing Iran to the negotiating table with Trump or toppling its government.
In the wake of the Iran Disinfo scandal in 2019, according to internal documents, State Department officials discussed a proposal from the program implementer to amplify Twitter messages from Richard Grenell, a combative Iran hawk and, at the time the documents were created, Trump’s ambassador to Germany. An official at the U.S. Embassy in Germany wrote of a June 2019 meeting with Memarsadeghi. “Mariam was eager to amplify Ambassador Grenell’s social media/Twitter messages in Farsi through the Tavaana platforms, but she also mentioned her organization was also linked to the Disinfo project that was discontinued,” wrote the embassy official, whose name was redacted in the email exchange.
In a subsequent email, whose senders and recipients are also redacted, another department official seems to give a blessing to the collaboration between Grenell and Tavaana, explaining that the public was unaware of the links to Iran Disinfo. “We’ve reviewed Tavaana social media feeds carefully and have not found any inappropriate or out-of-scope behavior. We don’t have concerns with these social media accounts and are still funding them,” the official wrote. “To my knowledge, it’s not (widely) public or in the press reporting that Tavaana and IranDisinfo are/were run by the same group ECCE.”
Although Iran Disinfo was a separate project, it shared the same leadership and staff with other ECCE projects: Memarsadeghi was the project lead, and Brittany Hamzy was project manager for both Iran Disinfo and Tavaana and remains on at ECCE as deputy director. (Memarsadeghi, who did not respond to requests for comment, resigned from her position at ECCE in December 2019.)
“Funding that was meant to counter ISIS propaganda was morphed into funding to silence activists and experts who want to reform U.S. policy on Iran.”
In response to a question about their current relationship with the ECCE, a State Department spokesperson said, “The GEC ended its work with E-Collaborative for Civic Education (ECCE) in 2019 following a 2019 review. The State Department does not currently provide funding to any ECCE programs.” The State Department, however, refused to confirm whether it has ended its working relationship with the ECCE. Government grantees occasionally spend short periods of waiting time between finished projects and new grants. (ECCE did not respond to requests for comment.)
The revelations about attempts to continue its work with a disgraced contractor suggest a determination by the Trump administration to keep pressing its hard line against Iran.
“It seems that the State Department is playing bait and switch with the American people, announcing they had cut funding to a project that used tax dollars to attack American human rights researchers and academics considered not sufficiently war-hungry on Iran, but quietly funding other projects by the same organization under the same leadership,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, former director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. Whitson had publicly flagged Iran Disinfo’s State Department funding last year after the group made a disparaging tweet about Human Right Watch’s Iran researcher, who was investigating the negative impact of U.S. sanctions on access to medicine in Iran.
Whitson told The Intercept, “The real bottom line here is that funding that was meant to counter ISIS propaganda was morphed into funding to silence activists and experts who want to reform U.S. policy on Iran.”
The FOIA documents obtained by The Intercept show how many of the State Department’s efforts — such as the ones describing efforts to quietly keep the relationship with ECCE going — have been marshaled in the service of pushing a hard-line view of Iran policy. Diplomatic counterpropaganda resources continue to be poured into pursuing the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, with the result being combative public messaging. In the case of Iran Disinfo, the funds came from State Department’s Global Engagement Center, whose mission is to “recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts.”
“The Global Engagement Center was designed to protect Americans and democracies from the threat of disinformation,” said Brett Bruen, former director of global engagement in President Barack Obama’s White House. “They have failed miserably. They have done little, even as the danger grew.”
Instead, funds disbursed by the GEC were used, as in the case of Iran Disinfo and its affiliated Twitter accounts, to wage online campaigns against groups and individuals based in the U.S. — smearing human rights researchers, former political prisoners in Iran, analysts who are critical of Trump’s Iran policy, and even Persian media outlets and journalists (including a reporter on this story) as “mouthpieces” and apologists for the Iranian regime.
“It has been used by the administration for publicity and the pursuit of those who opposed their foreign policy, especially on Iran,” Bruen said. “Astonishingly, those who were targeted included American citizens. This violates the law and fundamental beliefs about how our country should operate.”
The money given out to groups like ECCE over the years is part of a purported effort to promote democracy in Iran, initiatives for which Congress has appropriated more than $515 million since 2004. In 2020, the State Department received $55 million from Congress for Iran democracy programs under the rubric of Near East Regional Democracy initiatives, known as NERD. NERD-funded programs include online initiatives based outside Iran, due to the Iranian government’s deep suspicion of U.S.-funded democracy projects and the security risks posed to those who implement them. For this reason, the State Department does not publicize NERD activities, grantees, or beneficiaries.
The secrecy has created a funding ecosystem that lacks transparency and rigorous congressional oversight, and is not open to media and public scrutiny that can result in scandals.
“The Iran Disinfo campaign was a clear example of why we need more transparency with respect to all operations within the State Department. It was unacceptable that Americans were being targeted and harassed online, financed by tax dollars for being critical of the Trump Administration’s policy with Iran,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in a statement to The Intercept. “I was happy to see the contract cancelled, but it’s deeply disturbing to hear that the State Department continued to fund the program’s implementers.”
Since taking office in 2017, Trump embarked on a reversal of the approach that Barack Obama took toward Iran. After exiting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal over opposition from America’s European allies, Trump ramped up economic sanctions against Iran and even carried out targeted killings of Iranian military officials.
Efforts like Iran Disinfo are part of the administration‘s overall strategy. Though the public scrutiny of the initiative led to its downfall, the modus operandi of launching personal attacks against critics is typical of the Trump administration’s general approach — visible in statements from the president himself, as well as top officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The documents obtained by The Intercept give an inside look as the State Department scrambled to deal with inquiries from Capitol Hill and the press about Iran Disinfo’s online behavior.
Memarsadeghi, who founded and ran ECCE with her husband, Akbar Atri, has promoted a hard-line view of Iran policy, frequently engaging in the sort of online attacks that became Iran Disinfo’s calling card. In the internal documents, State Department officials even complained about Memarsadeghi attacking their own agency, referring to a tweet she shared questioning why Pompeo did not take a more hard-line stance on Iran during a speech. The softer stance, according to the emails, turned out to have been a translation mistake. Officials continued to complain, however, that Memarsadeghi didn’t amend her tweets even after she was notified of the translation error.
“It is explicitly prohibited to use public diplomacy funds, which are designed to influence foreign audiences, to propagandize Americans.”
As scrutiny on Iran Disinfo’s combative social media presence mounted, the behavior became a problem for the GEC. “It is explicitly prohibited to use public diplomacy funds, which are designed to influence foreign audiences, to propagandize Americans,” said Bruen.
Bruen added that the Iran Disinfo flap reflected a broader problem with counterpropaganda funding in the Trump administration. “A recent Inspector General report noted that in most cases, they don’t even bother to ask what impact their work is having against the spread of disinformation,” he said. “Instead, they are pretty much just shoveling money out the back of pickup trucks to anyone who says they’ll do something about propaganda.”
Memarsadeghi and key members of her team had not been vetted for their work on the Iran Disinfo project as late as April 2019, months after the project had started, according to the emails obtained by The Intercept. An email written by Memarsadeghi on March 28, 2019 said, “Several key members of our staff (myself included) have NOT been confirmed to be cleared, as well as several consultants we’re hoping to work with.” The email asked for the vetting process to be expedited to avoid future problems.
As public concern over Iran Disinfo’s activities grew, questions were raised inside Foggy Bottom. On May 30, 2019, TJ Rodebaugh, a State Department official, sent an email to Lea Gabrielle, a former intelligence official and Fox News reporter who was appointed by Trump to lead the GEC. Rodebaugh laid out the background of the Iran Disinfo flap, including a timeline, and distributed talking points for the official to use.
“At 12:15 Scott called the implementer” — Iran Disinfo — “to explain that, based on the Scope of Work they agreed to, their activities should be focused on foreign audiences (not engaged in online debates with U.S. based organizations) and should utilize their fact based reporting, documentaries, and briefing packets,” the email to Gabrielle said. “If they cannot keep the scope of their activities to that of the project SOW and work plan then they risk the longevity of the project. The implementer’s president, Mariam Memarsadeghi, said that she will immediately contact the account operators and get them back within scope.”
The effort to save Iran Disinfo’s public image would prove futile. By early June, the State Department suspended the project under pressure from the media and Congress. On July 10, Gabrielle publicly acknowledged in a congressional hearing that the $1.5 million Global Engagement Center contract with Iran Disinfo had been canceled.
At around the same time, however, the U.S. official in the German embassy was seeking cooperation from Memarsadeghi to distribute Grenell’s statements. The internal documents also show that the same month, ECCE officials were communicating with the State Department about a new grant opportunity for which they had been invited to apply.
As the State Department became a machine for promoting the Trump administration’s Iran policy, officials at Foggy Bottom remained highly attuned to public scrutiny of their activities.
Internal emails show officials held internal discussions about a 2019 article published in The Intercept titled “How Voice of America Persian Became a Trump Administration PR Machine.” The article outlined how the ostensibly apolitical Persian-language outlet had become another tool in Trump’s maximum pressure program against Iran. In a series of emails to various officials, then-State Department senior adviser Mora Namdar called the article “misleading and inaccurate,” and offered to brief higher-ups about the news story. Namdar was later installed as acting vice president for legal affairs at Voice of America’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media. (In response to a request for comment, the State Department declined to expand on its complaints about the story.)
With the Iran Disinfo grant discontinued, the State Department still had $1.2 million of its original budget to spend. An October 2019 memo requested approval from Gabrielle to disburse the remainder of the funds to the Stabilisation Network, an organization that describes itself as being involved in countering violent extremism and has very limited online presence, including a website that does not mention State Department funding.
In a statement to The Intercept, a representative of the Stabilization Network said the group received funding to support social cohesion, youth, and civil society organizations in Jordan. The group’s representative said it does no work on Iran and has no connections to Iran Disinfo, ECCE, or other related projects.
In late November, months after the public scandal over Iran Disinfo and its subsequent termination, nationwide protests broke out in Iran. The government cracked down on protesters violently. Christopher Taylor, a State Department official in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, wrote to Memarsadeghi to thank her for the “excellent” work by Tavaana — the ECCE project then still receiving grant money — in covering the protests. Taylor also asked if the State Department could forward videos of the protests it received to Tavaana, for wider distribution.
“Of course, Chris,” Memarsadeghi wrote back. “That’s perfect. Thank you.”