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Trump launches media campaign to create opposition to Iranian leaders

US officials say Trump has launched an offensive of speeches and online communications to foment unrest

National Security Adviser John Bolton. US officials say campaign at times using anti-Iran information that is exaggerated (AFP)

The Trump administration has launched a communications campaign to foment unrest and put pressure on Iran to end its nuclear programme and its support of armed groups, US officials familiar with the matter said.

More than half-a-dozen current and former officials told the Reuters news agency that the campaign is meant to work in concert with US President Donald Trump's push to economically throttle Iran by re-imposing tough sanctions.

The drive, supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, has intensified since Trump withdrew on 8 May from a 2015 seven-nation deal to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The officials said the campaign paints Iranian leaders in a harsh light, at times using information that is exaggerated or contradicts other official pronouncements, including comments by previous administrations.

This campaign consists of speeches and online devices aimed at encouraging Iranians to stand up to the country's leaders and urge them to end its nuclear programme. 

The White House declined to comment on the campaign, Reuters said. The State Department also refused to comment on the campaign specifically, including on Pompeo's role.

On Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cautioned Trump about pursuing hostile policies against Tehran, saying "America should know ... war with Iran is the mother of all wars," the state news agency IRNA reported.

"You are not in a position to incite the Iranian nation against Iran's security and interests," Rouhani said, in an apparent reference to the reported efforts by Washington to destabilise Iran's government.

A senior Iranian official also dismissed the campaign, saying the US had sought in vain to undermine the government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Their efforts will fail again," the official said.

Critical posts

A review of the State Department's Farsi-language Twitter account and its ShareAmerica website, which describes itself as a platform to spark debate on democracy and other issues, shows some posts critical of Tehran over the past month.

Iran is the subject of four of the top five items on the website's "Countering Violent Extremism" section. They include headlines such as "This Iranian airline helps spread violence and terror".

In social media posts and speeches, Pompeo himself also appeals directly to Iranians, the Iranian diaspora and a global audience.

On 21 June, Pompeo tweeted out graphics headlined: "Protests in Iran are growing," "Iranian people deserve respect for their human rights," and "Iran's revolutionary guard gets rich while Iranian families struggle".

The tweets were translated into Farsi and posted on the ShareAmerica website.

Officials said the drive is supported by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Reuters)

On Sunday, Pompeo will give a speech titled "Supporting Iranian Voices" in California and meet Iranian Americans, many of whom fled the Islamic Revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

"Let me be clear; we are not seeking regime change. We are seeking changes in the Iranian government's behaviour," a State Department official said in response to questions from Reuters.

"We know we are driving Iran to make some hard choices. Either they can change their ways or find it increasingly difficult to engage in their malign activities," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"And we believe we are offering a very positive vision for what we could achieve and what the Iranian people could have."

Conflicting evidence

Some of the information the administration has disseminated is incomplete or distorted, the current and former officials said.

In a 21 May speech in Washington, Pompeo said Iranian leaders refused to spend on their people funds freed by the nuclear weapons deal, using it instead for proxy wars and corruption.

By contrast, in March testimony before a US Senate committee, the US Defense Intelligence Agency director, Robert Ashley, said social and economic expenditures remained Tehran's near-term priority despite some spending on security forces.

Pompeo also accused "Iran-sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists" of infiltrating Iraqi security forces and jeopardising Iraq's sovereignty throughout the nuclear agreement.

While opponents accuse the Iran-backed Iraqi militias of human rights abuses against civilians, which the groups deny, the militias fought Islamic State and helped keep them group from overrunning Iraq in 2014 after Iraq's army collapsed.

They then aided the US-backed offensives that took back IS-held territory, and some units incorporated into Iraqi security forces.

The State Department official acknowledged that the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are by law part of Iraq's security forces and played a role in countering Islamic State in 2014.

"We understand, however, that some of the undisciplined PMF are especially close to Iran, responsive to Iran’s directives, and have a history of criminal activity and terrorism," the official said.

"Those groups are as problematic for the Iraqi state as they are for us."

Experts said the administration also is exaggerating the closeness of the relationship between Iran, Afghanistan's Taliban and al-Qaeda by calling them co-conspirators.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about the accuracy of the information it was disseminating.

It is too early to determine the impact of the administration's communications campaign, US officials said.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said the strategy to economically strangle Iran and stoke public discontent with the leadership aimed to produce one of two outcomes.

"Outcome one is capitulation, forcing Iran to further curtail not only its nuclear programme but also its regional ambitions," Sadjadpour said. "Outcome two is the implosion of the Islamic Republic."

But some US officials and other experts cautioned that by fueling turmoil in Iran, the US administration could foster greater authoritarian rule and a more aggressive foreign policy, raising the threat of a US-Iran confrontation.

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