US intel chief says Iran is attempting to stoke Gaza protests

Iran is attempting to covertly stoke protests in the United States related to the conflict in Gaza, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement on Tuesday, posing as activists online and, in some cases, providing financial support to protesters.

“I want to be clear that I know Americans who participate in protests are, in good faith, expressing their views on the conflict in Gaza — this intelligence does not indicate otherwise,” Haines said.

“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,” she said. “We urge all Americans to remain vigilant as they engage online with accounts and actors they do not personally know.”

US officials believe that Iran, despite its past support to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, has sought to calibrate its response to the Israeli assault on Gaza to avoid a prolonged direct conflict between the two countries.

But it has continued to seek to extract costs from the US and Israel.

The conflict in Gaza has sparked protests across the United States, in particular on college campuses, where some Americans have expressed horror at the scale of civilian casualties caused by Israel as it attempts to stamp out Hamas, which carried out the October 7 attack on southern Israel. Those protests have been hugely divisive domestically, making them a ripe target for foreign actors — like Iran — interested in amplifying discord within the US.

US officials, including Haines, have warned publicly that Iran has become “increasingly aggressive in their foreign influence efforts.” In recent weeks, “Iranian government actors have sought to opportunistically take advantage of ongoing protests regarding the war in Gaza,” Haines said on Tuesday.

A US intelligence assessment released in December reported that Iran also tried to meddle in the 2022 midterm elections. Tehran, it said, sought to exploit perceived social divisions and undermine confidence in US democratic institutions — but that its efforts were limited by competing priorities, including the need to manage internal unrest.

Operatives working for the Iranian government also prepared fake, AI-generated content as part of a campaign to influence US voters in the closing weeks of the 2020 election campaign, CNN has previously reported.

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