David Pratt: Conspiracy gets in the way of facts on Iranian election interference

AS regular readers of The National will know, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over these past four decades reporting from countries where the extent of Iran’s political, intelligence and military influence is undeniable. Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan are the obvious four that spring to mind. Not to mention visiting Iran itself.  

It was with some considerable interest then that I read the latest story in The Times citing a study published by the Henry Jackson Society think tank indicating that Iran is “peddling disinformation” to influence the outcome of Scotland’s parliamentary elections in favour of pro-independence parties to help destabilise the UK.  

If comments on social media and elsewhere are anything to go by then at the very least the news stories, based on a study by Dr Paul Stott, a British academic specialising in Terrorism Studies and Jihadism, have certainly stoked what was already a lively arena of debate and sometimes out-and-out conspiracy theories with little basis in fact. 

READ MORE: Iran accused of plot to meddle in the Scottish Parliament election

Amidst the clamour of accusations and counter-accusations over Iranian actors in such a capacity, it’s above all vital to keep the factual details to the forefront of this discussion. The first is obviously the question of the extent to which players in Iran have the capacity to interfere in any election process? The short answer to that is an unequivocal yes.  

This is not news, far from it, given that international monitors be they open source or state intelligence services, have long been aware of Tehran’s activities. For quite some time now election interference has formed part of Iran’s international relations stratagem. 

As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) among others has pointed out, years now of going head-to-head with seriously powerful cyber warfare powers like Israel and Saudi Arabia have improved Iran’s cyber capabilities.  

CSIS and others identify three security – military organisations that play leading roles in cyber operations. These include the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia and Iran’s “Passive Defence Organisation (NPDO) that deals with among other things electronic warfare and cyber activity.  

But much of this activity as Dr Scott’s report rightly points out, involves cyber specialists acting on behalf of the Iranian regime. 

As a country too with some considerable experience of other kinds of covert action, Iran is more than able to conceptualise how cyberattacks fit into the larger strategic geopolitical landscape. Such a capacity is not one possessed by many countries and while Iran might not be in the top league, it’s still a player to be reckoned with.  

In other words, Iran is not Russia in this regard, but nevertheless has made its presence felt globally, most notably for example in the 2020 US elections.  

So, given that Iran does have the technological capacity, brings us to the next question, that of supporting evidence as to whether it has indeed tried to influence the Scottish electoral scene? Again, in a nutshell, the evidence shows this to be credible even if the degree of that interference is small, to say the least. 

Any examination of the latest statistical data from the likes of Twitter, Instagram and most recently Facebook’s 2021 report on Co-ordinated Inauthentic Behaviour, will show that networks originating in Iran had to be removed from certain platforms for spreading nefarious messages or disinformation.  

But what needs to be stressed here as an important point of accuracy, is that the extent of such co-ordinated activity targeting the Scottish political landscape and independence movement is, in Iran’s case, tiny and such players generally are few and far between. 

That much was pointed out yesterday by the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith when asked to comment in the wake of the news reports on Iran. 

“Scotland is an obvious target for disinformation and we’re kidding ourselves if we think it does not exist in Scottish cyberspace too,” said Smith.  

“Usually, the bad actors are not on any one particular side, they’re just there to cause upset and spread confusion, this would seem to be the case with these accounts, they’re not particularly on one side or another,” Smith added. 

READ MORE: David Pratt: What has Joe Biden achieved in his first 100 days?

Based on the evidence as it stands, that’s a view I would agree with. But there is another pressing issue here too. I am referring to the degree such stories based on studies from right-wing think tanks and adorned with certain headlines in various newspapers, can serve as mischief-making in their own right.  

Yes, I recognise that the Henry Jackson Society has stressed “there is no suggestion that Scottish nationalist politicians have encouraged or endorsed Iran’s interference,” but by its very timing, the release of this report and its prominence in the press has undeniably set a political hare running.  

What’s important here is to keep all this real and in context. It simply doesn’t help the independence cause by adding to the unnecessary alarm or suspicion some clearly allude or subscribe to for whatever motive. 

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