An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that “certain countries” are waging a “Soft War” against Iran that should be countered through the establishment of closer relationships with other nations (Tehran Times, June 8). The concept of a “Soft War” is quickly becoming an integral part of Iran’s strategic defense planning, making it worthwhile to examine how Iran has conceived this model and how it plans to answer the perceived “soft threat.”
In a major media statement responding to the unrest that followed the June 2009 presidential elections, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), provided a military strategic plan in August 2009 to counter what he described as “the enemy’s” efforts to topple the Islamic Republic (IRNA, August 29, 2009). In a ten-point list, Jafari highlighted measures intended to tackle the enemy’s “soft threat,” which he defines as the ultimate objective of the IRGC as protectors of the revolution (IRNA, August 29, 2009). A few days later, on September 1, 2009, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, the former head of the Quds Force (an elite unit within the IRGC) and the current Defense Minister of the Ahmadinejad administration, expanded on Jafari’s statement by asserting, “with the use of soft power we can protect the Islamic Republic by preventing and resisting outside threats” (IRNA, September 1, 2009).
Defining the Soft War
The IGRC reports to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which has substantially stepped up its Soft War rhetoric in a series of official statements issued since August 2009. The statements reveal that Tehran sees this alternative form of warfare as a series of hostile measures with the aim of changing the cultural and Islamic identity of Iranian society in such a way that it will erode the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic (IRNA, September 1, 2009). Though usually backed with the threat of military measures, soft warfare can impact all social aspects of a political system and can include such phenomena as “cultural invasions” and “psychological operations” in order to bring “discord” to the country (Press TV, October 2009; ISNA, March 31; see Terrorism Monitor, April 22).
Though the terminology may be new, this is not the first time Iran has viewed this type of warfare as a major threat to the regime. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has described internal dissenters as proxies of the United States and its allies, working to weaken the political system. The presidential election of 1997, won by the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami, provided a new reason for the hardliners, with the help of the intelligence-military complex, to step up measures to counter-attack soft threats. These included efforts to defend IRGC political activities from reformist critiques. When the 1999 student uprising challenged the regime’s tight grip over the press and the imprisonment of a number of reformists, the discourse of coup became an everyday staple of the hardliners’ media.
The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq increased Tehran’s own fear of military invasion, while the State Department’s $75 million Democracy Promotion fund for Iran only solidified Iranian fears of foreign support for a regime change. Likewise, the 2006 and 2007 arrests of a number of Western-based scholars like Ramin Jahanbaglou and Haleh Esfandiari on suspicion of assisting the United States through their association with a number of D.C.-based think tanks and human rights groups revealed the regime’s new conception of a U.S. offensive against Iran, a campaign broadly described by Iran as being in the style of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 “Velvet Revolution” (Iran Press Service, July 5, 2006; Press TV, August 2009).
Bringing the Soft War to Operational Levels
What makes the latest rhetoric different is that the Soft War concept has become increasingly operational at an institutional level. According to Brigadier General Said Masoud, MODAFL has set up a special military force, the “Unit of the Soft War” (Setad-e Jang-e Narm), which will become fully operational in 2011 (IRNA, March 3, 2010). This unit, largely made up of members of the Basij-e Mostaz’afin (or Basij – the state militia, subordinate to the IRGC), is responsible for soft operations such as propagation, cultural activities and “psychological operations” (Press TV, August 16, 2009; IRNA, January 2). The apparent objective is to confuse and subsequently disrupt foreign-organized soft attacks. In May the Iranian Majlis (parliament) ratified a bill designating the use of $100 million for “soft” programs, some of which has been set aside for the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council to produce pro-government art and film (Press TV, September 6, 2009; Alef, May 5). Accordingly, provincial councils around the country were allocated a “cultural budget” for setting up “soft war camps” scheduled to become operational in early May 2010 (Alef, May 5). The precise operation and structure of these provincial “soft war camps” remains unclear. Meanwhile, since late 2010 a number of conferences and instructional programs have been set up to produce analysis and intelligence on how the regime can effectively advance its software activities in the cultural and educational domains (IRNA, March 6).
Soft War Tactics: Defensive Measures
In terms of preventive measures, the government’s activities involve a series of soft defensive tactics. The main focus is on spreading the state ideology in various cultural and public institutions. Since one of the main Soft War battlefields is in the educational domain, an attempt is being made to reacquaint the young with the ideals of the revolution (Payvand, September 6, 2009). The institutionalization of various Basij centers in elementary schools is reminiscent of the early revolutionary years of the 1980s, when the newly established Islamic Republic sought to instill the new ideology among the younger population (Keyhan, October 5, 2009). In many ways, the thrust of the new ideological campaign can be described as a form of “cultural revolution” that includes the involvement of artists, intellectuals and poets as agents of “truth” who can “distribute” (or propagate) such ideals through cultural means (Press TV, September 6, 2009).
Another Soft War battleground is the broadcast media, especially the use of international TV news channels as a means of changing global public opinion in favor of the Islamic Republic. The objective here is not merely to advance the state ideology, but to expand various media outlets that can “rival” and “neutralize the effect of anti-Islamic Republic media” (Press TV, April 19, 2009). The 2007 launching of Press TV, an English-language 24-hour news channel, set the stage for the rise of a new type of state media competing on a global scale with Sunni-Arab channels like Al-Arabiyah, and Western channels like CNN and BBC. In November 2009, the IRGC announced its latest plan to begin a new press agency called Atlas, modeled on international news agencies like Al-Jazeera (Fars News, November 16, 2009). Shortly afterwards, Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi announced the inauguration of a new Iranian-designed satellite called Toloo, which will expand Iran’s global media capacities along with its military defense capabilities (Press TV, December 29, 2009).
Former IGRC commander Yahya Rahim Safavi pointed out in March that Iran must increase its number of 24-hour satellite television networks to counter “the enemy’s soft warfare,” declaring; “We can block the enemy’s cultural onslaught by using our own culture” (Press TV, March 8).
Soft War Tactics: Offensive Measures
The second tactical feature of Iran’s Soft War deals with offensive measures. The most important of these is the Internet and how such new mediums of communication can be used in the form of cyber warfare to undermine the flow of information in favor of the United States. Tehran views social sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as elements of a cyber warfare threat to the Islamic Republic, particularly in the way rumors are spread online to “stir up” discord within Iran (Press TV, January 25; IRNA, April 1). Along with reactive measures such as filtering and blocking access to various sites, Iran’s response is also one of proactive management of the flow of information. This includes establishing a “national data center,” limiting and supervising the activities of dissidents supported by the United States and perhaps to be used in spreading rumors in favor of the regime (Students News Network, March 31).
The prospect of expanding state influence over cyberspace and other media outlets in order to spread pro-government propaganda is significant. The objective seems based in a psychological warfare campaign to portray Iran’s abilities as greater than what they might be in reality. Iran’s cruise missile plant is a case in point. Inaugurated in early March, the plant was largely described by the Iranian press as an indigenous cruise missile factory (IRNA, March 10). In reality the plant was built by the Chinese and Nasr-1, the missile built there, is the Iranian name for China’s C-704 missile (Tehran Times, April 30). This propaganda strategy is also applied to how the Iranian media overstates the capabilities of the state armed forces, describing its military technology in overblown terms to give the impression of an overwhelming force (See Terrorism Monitor, April 22).
According to Hamid Mowlana, an advisor to President Ahmadinejad, the West, specifically the United States, has failed to recognize Iran’s “soft power infrastructure” (Press TV, March 11). This critical point underlines how Tehran has strategically shifted its attention to soft measures to tackle potential non-military threats to the state. The post-election unrest has pushed the regime to legitimize its authority by a show of hyperbolic activities, such as exaggeration of its military capabilities. In many ways, Tehran no longer views arts, culture and education as a source of threat but rather as an opportunity to enhance its influence in the idiom of ideas, (mis)information and cultural processes on domestic and regional scales. Promotion of Iran’s enhanced self-image could, if successful, be a potential problem for regional security, as many neighboring states, especially those in the Gulf, could seek to advance their military capabilities in response, paving the way towards a new age of arms competition. Iran’s soft tactics could also cause confusion in American perceptions of Iran’s actual military capabilities and its ability to accurately assess Iranian strength. New conflicts are born in the fog of words and ideas.