Argument

QAnon Goes to Iran

Restart, a fringe Iranian dissident group, shows how conspiracy spreads—and what that means for U.S. politics.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wearing “QAnon” t-shirts wait in line before a campaign rally at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Tennessee, on Oct. 1, 2018.
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wearing “QAnon” t-shirts wait in line before a campaign rally at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Tennessee, on Oct. 1, 2018. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

QAnon entered the mainstream U.S. political lingo in 2017, when its followers propagated the conspiracy theory that the “deep state” was plotting against U.S. President Donald Trump. Since then, ideas put forth by QAnon have gained traction, thanks in part to U.S. President Donald Trump giving a platform to its followers on a number of occasions, including by retweeting messages from accounts linked to the group. Most recently, a number of individuals with apparent ties to QAnon have become Republican candidates for Congress.

Although QAnon’s raison d’être is largely rooted in domestic politics—and it has capitalized mainly on anxieties prevalent in U.S. society—the conspiracy theory has recently developed an unlikely group of adherents: an Iranian dissident group that calls itself Restart. Despite remaining a minor political force for now, Restart is a fascinating example of a broader trend: conspiracist thinking going global.

The Restarters are a fringe association in a larger web of Iranian opposition and conspiracy groups that wish to overthrow Iran’s current power brokers. Among them are the followers of Reza Pahlavi, who is the son of the deposed shah, and the MujahideeneKhalq (MEK), a crypto-Shiite cultlike dissident group, to name a few. Such groups have enjoyed strong tailwinds in recent years. As BBC Monitoring reported in 2019, Iranian opposition factions have been able to increase their social-media reach and following since Trump took office—likely because of the perception that the Trump administration’s Iran policy favors them. At the same time, Tehran has also grown its online influence operations—with concerted efforts to launch disinformation campaigns against the United States.

These state and nonstate actors have very little in common; they differ in their ideologies and the traction they have received both within and outside Iran. However, they are aligned in at least one important respect: They are all vying for influence not in their native Iran, but in the United States, where they try to shift U.S. policy to their liking. And they do so by leveraging partisanship and other divisions within the United States.

Like QAnon, which doesn’t “possess a physical location, but … has an infrastructure, a literature, a growing body of adherents, and a great deal of merchandising,” as writer Adrienne LaFrance recently wrote in the Atlantic, Restart exists in the Internet more than the real world. But unlike QAnon, which has more of a presence in mainstream U.S. politics (with some candidates for office even espousing their ideas), Restart remains small. Its leader has certainly encouraged violent dissent, but more than leading to an actual rise in protests, Restart’s activities illustrate how fringe movements and media outlets can push narratives and amplify messages that can come to dominate more mainstream political discussions in the United States and around the globe.

In an example of how easy such manipulation has become, in April, Trump retweeted an account posing as an Iranian activist, “Heshmat Alavi.” In his tweet, Alavi had weighed in on U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Persian Gulf, writing, “Thank you, President Trump, for reminding this regime that the Obama years are gone.” In what appeared on the surface to be an unremarkable response, Trump fired off a tweet aimed at the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, implying that Iranian activities in the region were a direct result of former President Barack Obama’s policies.

What made the exchange troubling, though, was that “Heshmat Alavi is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK,” as an MEK defector told the Intercept in 2019. “This is not and has never been a real person.” More disconcerting yet, the MEK (which Restart opposes) was formerly designated a terrorist group by the United States and is responsible for some of the first terrorist attacks targeting Americans and U.S. interests in Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Even more so than the MeK, Restart’s reach within Iran is limited. But the movement has gained some traction in fringe media outlets in the United States promoted by the president of the United States.

Foreign policy has never been fully divorced from domestic politics, but the information age has given a new meaning to the adage, “Everything is political.” Given its economic, technological, and military power, the United States remains one of the only countries in the world whose politics reverberate around the globe. Groups from smaller nations bargain for power in Washington as much as they do in their own respective capitals.

Iran is no exception to this rule. For years, various Iranian groups have lobbied in Washington. Pahlavi has made the rounds in well-respected Beltway think tanks aligned with both sides of the aisle, including the Center for American Progress, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Hudson Institute, while the MEK’s operatives have met with key lawmakers. Regime leaders likewise make a point of meeting influential Americans and members of the Iranian diaspora when they travel to the United States for U.N. events. All seek to present their own narratives and cultivate support for their positions. Although they appeal to different groups in the United States, they all benefit from the country’s divisions, which they can manipulate to their advantage.

Tehran’s information operations are well documented. The regime has tried to embrace leftist politicians and activists in the United States, especially those whose ideology is grounded in criticizing the what they consider to be an interventionist foreign policy. Iran-linked accounts push pro-Iran policies, including criticism of the United States in general and U.S. sanctions in particular, as well as anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi positions. For example, official and inauthentic outlets and accounts linked to the Iranian government denounce U.S. sanctions, which they characterize as #EconomicTerrorism, and promote content about the fate of Palestinians and Yemenis in line with the regime’s positions on the conflicts—conflicts in which Iran has a hand. Regime-linked accounts often try to engage the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, amplifying content critical of U.S. foreign policy.

For their part, regime opponents appeal more to the right, arguing for a more muscular approach to Iran—including more political pressure and economic sanctions, some going as far as advocating for military intervention. For example, in a video message addressed to U.S. lawmakers from both parties, the MEK’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, called for “the regime’s overthrow, overthrow, overthrow.” All these dissident groups also share a deep suspicion of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts aimed at restricting Iranian nuclear activities. For all three, the Obama administration simply extended the Islamic Republic’s life instead of crushing it, as they believe the Trump administration is doing.

The Restarters take this idea to a new level. Accounts linked with the group have pushed for war with Iran and have proffered offers to fight alongside Americans should the United States decide to stage a military intervention to topple the Iranian regime. And to further appeal to the Trump administration, they have adopted the slogan #MIGA (for “Make Iran Great Again,” a play on Trump’s #MAGA, or “Make America Great Again”). Restart frequently replies to the president’s tweets with this hashtag.

The group seems to be getting through. Responding to reporters’ questions about U.S.-Iranian relations in June 2019, Trump noted, “Let’s make Iran great again. Does that make sense? Make Iran great again.” Even if this was a coincidence, it raised the group’s profile among some parts of the president’s base. In 2018, the group’s leader even appeared on Infowars, which has spent some time covering its origins and objectives. A fringe group such as this one would have been unlikely to gain any prominence in the absence of two factors: First, a U.S. political landscape characterized by deep partisanship and a distrust of traditional authorities; and second, the proliferation of social media platforms.

For Restart and its allies and foes, the United States’ political ecosystem is a boxing ring. By competing for influence and asserting themselves in the United States, these players believe they can ultimately attain some form of power in their own country. The Iranian regime sees its influence operations in the United States as key to securing its interests, perhaps its very survival. Influence in U.S. politics is thus a means rather than an end in itself. But in the process of increasing their power on the U.S. political scene, the groups also manipulate the U.S. political system through their influence operations—in the end both using and accelerating U.S. political polarization.

In turn, if the United States fails to address polarization—as immense a challenge as that is—it not only opens the door to interference by authoritarian state actors such as Iran, but also paves the way for those states and their opponents to manipulate democratic processes for their own gain.

Ariane Tabatabai is the Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University. She’s the author of the forthcoming No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy.

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