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US sanctions Iranian nationals, company for interference in 2020 election

Iranian nationals and company with links to Revolutionary Guard tried to undermine confidence in last year's 2020 presidential elections, Treasury says
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 18 September 2021 (AFP)

The United States announced on Thursday that it is sanctioning six Iranian nationals and an Iranian cyber company for "attempting to influence" the US presidential elections in 2020.

According to a statement released by the US Treasury Department, "state-sponsored Iranian cyber actors executed an online operation to intimidate and influence American voters, and to undermine voter confidence and sow discord".

As part of their campaign, the US says the now sanctioned individuals and company disseminated disinformation on social media and sent threatening emails and a fraudulent video in order to "undermine faith in the election by implying that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots".

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"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.

On Wednesday, US, British and Australian officials warned that hackers tied to the Iranian government have been targeting a "broad range of victims" inside the US with ransomware.

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

The advisory came after Microsoft revealed that Iran-backed hackers had targeted dozens of defence technology and maritime transportation firms, in a spying campaign launched in July that could leave some of the companies vulnerable to follow-on hacking attempts.

Links to Iran's Revolutionary Guard

The Treasury Department named Iranian cyber company Emennet Pasargad as leading the campaign against the US election. The company was previously known to US authorities for working with and aiding the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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

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The indictment alleges the two 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 posed as members of the far-right Proud Boys group to send emails to thousands of registered Democratic voters, including some of those whose information was stolen - threatening them unless they voted for now-former President Trump.

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.

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