Authoritarian governments flood the information space with lies amidst the pandemic

Iran, Russia and China champion the obfuscation of truth in their concerted disinformation efforts.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani published an open letter directed at the American people. His address, riddled with dangerous falsehoods, claims that the Iranian people are being harmed “by both the deadly coronavirus and the callous U.S. government policy of economic terrorism inflicted on them.” By “economic terrorism” Rouhani is referring to America’s “illegal” withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He also blames the U.S for “undermining the ability of the Iranian people to fight the coronavirus,” endangering their health, wellbeing and incomes.

Just two days after this address was published, Ayatollah Khamenei announced via Twitter that Iran would not accept America-provided medications for combatting coronavirus since “the US could be giving medicines that spread the virus or cause it to remain…” So, Iran’s regime  decried the U.S. for not assisting Iran in combatting the virus but then refused the U.S. offer to provide medicinal aid. In a clip shared by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,  Rouhani himself explains that the regime’s concerted effort to garner funds is not about countering the virus but is about “cash for its leaders.”

Pompeo has consistently called out the Iranian regime for perpetuating disinformation and misrepresenting critical statistics. Last week during a press briefing he stated that “instead of focusing on the needs of the Iranian people and accepting genuine offers of support, senior Iranians lied about the Wuhan virus outbreak for weeks.” The Secretary is referring to the regime’s decision to allow economic and business activity to continue uninterrupted at the outset of the outbreak. Even though officials identified the city of Qom as the center of the outbreak in mid-February, the regime refused to isolate the city or provide quarantine mandates to citizens residing there.

Pompeo also reported at this press briefing that “the Iranian leadership is trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governments. The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice.” These statements followed President Rouhani’s verbal attacks scapegoating the United States for the failures of Iran’s containment policy.

Iran is not alone in acting to obfuscate the true source of the virus. China and Russia have also been accused of peddling disinformation in an attempt to undermine their shared adversary, the United States. The trio of authoritarian powers has most recently claimed the Wuhan virus  is an American made bioweapon brought to China by US military personnel.

Lea Gabrielle, a special envoy and coordinate of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, reported anti-American conspiracy theories have sharply risen since the onset of the virus back in January. In a recent press briefing, Gabrielle explained how nations like Iran, China and Russia are manipulating the information space to push their own agendas.

President Rouhani’s letter is a perfect example of this.

Despite Pompeo and Gabrielle’s concerted reporting on this front, the State Department on Monday announced it will renew four waivers of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program for 60 days, essentially extending waivers on U.S. sanctions against Russian, European and Chinese companies operating at Iran’s civilian nuclear plants.

Extending these restrictions weaken Trump’s maximum pressure campaign at a critical time. Iran’s leadership is manipulating global sympathy to strengthen its  nuclear ambitions. In order for the Trump administration to achieve its longstanding goal of constraining the nuclear activities of the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, these waivers must be eliminated.

About Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy, located in Washington D.C. She is also a M.A. candidate in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at IDC Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government in Israel.