US slaps new sanctions on Iranian groups for election interference

Iranian groups have been sanctioned for interfering with the US election and US voters. (AP)
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Updated 23 October 2020

US slaps new sanctions on Iranian groups for election interference

  • US says Bayan Gostar, an alleged IRGC-Qods Force “front company” for propaganda, took the lead in the activities

WASHINGTON:  The United States on Thursday slapped new sanctions on five Iranian entities for what it called “brazen attempts” to interfere with the US election.
Stepping up pressure after US intelligence pointed the finger at both Iran and Russia, the Treasury Department accused the Iranian groups of seeking to spread disinformation and division ahead of the November 3 vote.
The Treasury imposed the fresh sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC-Qods Force, the Bayan Rasaneh Gostar Institute, the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union and International Union of Virtual Media.
The groups have worked to “sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters,” the Treasury said.
Bayan Gostar, which the Treasury called an IRGC-Qods Force “front company” for propaganda, took the lead in the activities, it said.
Ahead of the election, “Bayan Gostar personnel have planned to influence the election by exploiting social issues within the United States, including the Covid-19 pandemic, and denigrating US political figures,” it said.
“As recently as summer 2020, Bayan Gostar was prepared to execute a series of influence operations directed at the US populace ahead of the presidential election.”
The two media groups were part of that operation, it said.
The Treasury gave no specific details on what the Iranians had done, but US social media companies have blocked accounts and postings they determined were part of Iranian government-backed influence efforts related to the election and social issues.
The sanctions, which forbid Americans and US entities from doing business with the Iranian groups, likely have little real impact, as the IRGC and IRGC-Qods Force are already subject to other sweeping sanctions.
The announcement came one day after the US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe fingered Iran as behind recent emails addressed to US voters threatening them to support President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.
The emails appeared to have been sent by a right-wing US militia group, the Proud Boys, but Ratcliffe said Iran was behind them.
Trump stirred controversy in his first debate with his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, by equivocating on whether he condemns the Proud Boys.

Iran summoned the ambassador of Switzerland, who represents US interests in Tehran in the absence of diplomatic relations, to deny the “fabricated and clumsy” allegations.
US authorities “have put forward a baseless claim on the verge of the country’s election so that they would advance their undemocratic and predefined scenario through shifting the blame,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement.
The accusations against Iran came after longstanding US concerns about the role of Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged favoring Trump in the 2016 election and an investigation by former FBI chief Robert Mueller found evidence that Trump associates cooperated with Moscow, although he said he did not have enough to bring conspiracy charges.
Trump has repeatedly voiced anger at the “Russia hoax,” describing it as a way to discredit his election victory.
While Trump has spoken fondly of Putin, his administration has been a sworn enemy of Iran’s clerical regime, imposing overwhelming sanctions and withdrawing from a denuclearization accord negotiated by former president Barack Obama.
The Treasury Department separately Thursday imposed sanctions against Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, where the United States has been working to fight Tehran’s influence.
The Treasury alleged Iraj Masjedi was a “close adviser” to Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, who was killed in January by a US strike.


UK scientists warn too early to tell if new COVID-19 variant more deadly

Updated 23 January 2021

UK scientists warn too early to tell if new COVID-19 variant more deadly

  • PM Boris Johnson had previously said evidence showed higher mortality rate 
  • Top medics have said it is “too early” to say whether the variant carries with it a higher mortality rate

LONDON: The discovery of a new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) variant in the UK should not alter the response to the pandemic, scientists say, despite fears that it could prove more deadly.
Top medics have said it is “too early” to say whether the variant, thought to be up to 70 percent more transmissible, carries with it a higher mortality rate.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed there was “some evidence” the variant had “a higher degree of mortality” at a press conference on Friday, Jan. 22, with the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, adding it could be up to 30 percent more deadly. 
That came after a briefing by the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said there was a “realistic possibility” of an increased risk of death.
Prof. Peter Horby, Nervtag’s chairman, said: “Scientists are looking at the possibility that there is increased severity ... and after a week of looking at the data we came to the conclusion that it was a realistic possibility.
“We need to be transparent about that. If we were not telling people about this we would be accused of covering it up.”
But infectious disease modeller Prof. Graham Medley, one of the authors of the Nervtag briefing, told the BBC: “The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open.
He added: “In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”
Dr. Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling for the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said he was “quite surprised” Johnson had made the claim.
“I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong,” he added.