WASHINGTON — Iran is engaging in a unique version of a soft power war with the U.S., focusing on influencing foreign populations by using its state broadcasting assets and cultural centers, universities, and charitable foundations, a newly released study says.
With much media focus on the escalating military tensions with Iran, Tehran is primarily engaged in a “soft war,” or jang-e narm in Persian, with the West — especially the United States — the study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank based in Washington says.
“Iranian soft power is inextricably linked to the country’s revolutionary ideology and imperial legacy as a Persian power,” the CSIS study released Tuesday says. The overarching theme of the campaign is reinforcement of the idea that the Islamic Republic is neither East nor West but a society and culture unique in its merits and leadership, according to the study.
“The United States and its allies possess significant hard power advantages, making it unlikely that Iran could defeat the West through military or economic means,” the CSIS study says. “Iran’s use of soft power is an acknowledgment of this reality and a strategic effort to compete more effectively, via the lower-cost, more accessible realm of culture.”
The West counters the increasing Iranian efforts by highlighting the lack of credibility and corruption of the Tehran government, the negative views of Iran in much of the Muslim world, and the attraction of western culture and opportunities, the report says.
“Iran’s vulnerabilities suggest that a major component of U.S. competition with Iran should be ideological,” the reports says. “After all, the U.S. information campaign against the Soviet Union—which included such platforms and systems as Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the U.S. Information Agency—was critical in winning the Cold War. The United States’ strengths—including its democratic values and commitment to a free and independent media—are also some of Iran’s most acute weaknesses.”
The Pentagon has ramped up military assets in the Persian Gulf to hedge against what it says are unspecified increased military threats by Iran and its proxies that were first tracked in May. Regional commanders asked for a second round of reinforcements this week, but Pentagon officials would not say on Wednesday what those new requests seek.
The report was issued as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a two-day visit to Iran on Wednesday as part of international efforts to reduce tensions between Tehran and Washington. Abe’s trip has the support of the White House.
A primary tool for the Iranian soft-power effort is its broadcasting and media operations, the report says. It notes that the official media, such as its international broadcast efforts, has limited reach and impact. Much more effective is Iran’s aggressive disinformation campaigns throughout social media, the report says.
“One recent assessment of Iranian influence operations by the cyber security company FireEye concluded that Iranian influence operations are ‘significant’ and demonstrate that Iran ‘continues to engage in and experiment with online, social media-driven influence operations to shape political discourse,’ ” the report says.
The report also notes that while Iran’s cultural office has only 72 locations around the world, it is augmented by scores of unofficial informal cultural centers to spread its propaganda.
“For example, while the (Iranian cultural office) lacks a significant official presence in the Western Hemisphere—with only two offices in North America (New York City and Ottawa) and one in South America (Caracas)—it maintains a growing number of informal cultural centers in the region,” the report says, including more than 100 in Latin America.
Also significant is the Al-Mustafa International University (MIU), which has 60 overseas branches, and Islamic charitable foundations, or bonyads, the report says.
“Tehran is expanding its propaganda across the globe, conducting aggressive disinformation campaigns, and exporting its revolutionary ideology through a growing network of television programs, social media outlets, cultural centers, and other formal and informal platforms,” the report says. “Iran is able to reach more people in more areas of the globe than ever before, a huge benefit to Iranian leaders.”