A State Department official accused two prominent Iranian-American figures of serving the Iranian regime, including one Iranian-American journalist who had been taken hostage by the Iranian government for nearly two years.
“In case you were not 100% sure [congressional candidate Sima Ladjevardian] is an #Iran Regime mouthpiece this endorsement by [journalist Jason Rezaian] puts all doubt to rest,” U.S. Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ellie Cohanim wrote in a Twitter post on Monday. The tweet has since been taking down.
Critics slammed Cohanim’s statement as an ethnically-motivated attack on Iranian-Americans, especially Rezaian, who was the Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post when he was imprisoned by the Iranian government from July 2014 to January 2016.
Ladjevardian is a Democratic candidate in Texas’s second congressional district, where she is running to unseat the freshman Republican firebrand Dan Crenshaw. The race has attracted more than $13 million in campaign spending, more than any other congressional race in Texas.
“I love America more than I can describe. My family fled the chaos and violence of the Iranian revolution when I was just 12 years old,” Ladjevardian shot back at Cohanim in a series of tweets. “My family has dealt with xenophobic ‘dual loyalty’ slander like yours for years…Now this, from a Trump [State Department] employee. It's repulsive.”
Rezaian is an Iranian-American journalist and currently a Global Opinions writer for The Washington Post. Both he and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, had been arrested by Iranian authorities but she was let go in October 2014 and spent the next year and a half fighting for her husband’s release.
“It's been nearly five years since I was released, and I’m still dealing with the emotional and psychological scars of that experience,” Rezaian told 60 Minutes in August 2020.
He sued the Iranian government for his ordeal, and a judge in the United States ruled in November 2019 that the regime must pay $180 million in damages for the “torture” it inflicted on Rezaian “intentionally.”
Rezaian weighed in on the Texas congressional race with a Twitter post on Sunday, stating that Ladjaverdian’s candidacy could result in a “massive” upset for Republicans. That post seems to have provoked Cohanim’s ire.
As an employee and a State Department political appointee, Cohanim’s decision to weigh in on an election is unusual, but fits a pattern of accusations that the State Department has been unduly politicking on official time and the taxpayers’ dime.
Aside from criticisms that Pompeo has been violating the Hatch Act, which restricts the ability of federal employees to campaign for political candidates, the State Department also came under fire last year when a counter-propaganda service it funded, the Iran Disinformation Project, attacked domestic critics of Trump.
The department claimed to have defunded the project, but continued to work with its creator Mariam Memarsadeghi for months afterwards, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.
“Now that [the Iran Disinformation Project] is shut down actual [State Department] staff is [sic] doing the slandering against Iranian Americans directly,” Rezaian wrote in his response to Cohanim.
The spat echoes an earlier incident in which Richard Grenell, a part-time State Department envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, attacked Democratic candidate Joe Biden for having the support of an Iranian-American group.
Cohanim’s Twitter profile describes her as Iranian-American. She fled antisemitism in Iran during the 1979 revolution, and served in numerous Jewish-American organizations before joining the State Department in December 2019.
Benjamin Kweskin, an Atlanta-based activist who works on Muslim-Jewish community relations, told Responsible Statecraft that Cohanim’s actions were potentially harmful for Jewish-Americans as well.
“For centuries Jews have been targeted with this very epithet which overtly claims that they can never be fully integrated or accepted into a society because their loyalty truly lies elsewhere,” he wrote in a text message. “By using the charge of dual-loyalty towards another (arguably more vulnerable) minority population, such statements undermine the [anti-Semitism] task force's ability to accomplish its stated goals.”