Iran, Russia Push Back Against Reports of Meddling in US Elections

People walk near a Microsoft office in New York in 2016. (AP Photo/Swayne B. Hall)

(CN) — Microsoft’s claim to have prevented Iranian cyberattacks drew swift denials Friday from Tehran where officials maintain they have no interest in who controls America’s executive branch.

Microsoft published the report a day earlier, saying its cybersecurity team had stopped the Iranian-based hacking group Phosphorus from attempting to log on the accounts of President Donald Trump and other administration officials. A year earlier, Microsoft linked the same group to 2,700 attempts to identify email accounts and 241 total attacks on intellectual property, among other cyberattacks.

Thursday’s security report also showed that Chinese and Russian accounts had targeted both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaigns. Both camps have said they are aware of the attempted hacks. 

But Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh rebuffed Microsoft’s report Friday, recalling the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup of Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was known for trying to nationalize the Iranian oil industry.

Noting that record of influencing foreign elections, Khatibzadeh said in a news release that the U.S. “is in no place to make such absurd claims.”

“For Tehran, it does not matter who is in the White House,” Khatibzadeh said in a statement. “What matters is Washington’s commitment to international rights, rules and norms, not meddling in others’ affairs and acting on their commitments.” 

Microsoft’s report also said Russian-based Strontium had targeted more than 200 organizations, including political campaigns, consultants and advocacy groups. These intrusions were products of the same Russian military officers that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computers in 2016.

Microsoft takes control over fraudulent domains it discovers to limit security threats to customers. In 2018, the company announced it had seized six domain names related to Strontium that mimicked nonprofit and governmental sites — including one referencing the U.S. Senate website, although it was “not specific to particular offices.” 

The U.S. Treasury Department also took direct action against election interference Thursday, sanctioning four Russian-linked individuals for attempting to influence the 2020 election. In addition to Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, whom the Justice Department charged Thursday with wire fraud and conspiracy, the United States imposed sanctions on Anton Andreyev, Darya Aslanova and Andrii Derkach. 

Russian officials Friday called the sanctions “groundless.”

Denying that Russian officials had interfered with the U.S. election, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing that the country “does not plan to influence the electoral process in the United States and other countries.”

The Treasury Department claims since late last year that Derkach was engaged in a covert campaign to cultivate unsubstantiated claims of U.S. officials. He also allegedly tried to ramp up corruption investigations in both the U.S. and Ukraine while keeping close connections with Russian Intelligence Services.

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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