Overview: This article examines one of the most frequent modern war operations that rogue countries apply to fight rivals: psychological/information warfare. Iran’s psychological techniques to influence behavior abroad is the focus of this paper.
Psychological warfare (PSYWAR) or psychological operations (PSYOP) are non–lethal techniques to influence an enemy’s behavior, beliefs, or reasoning. White or grey propaganda and black propaganda (“fake news”) serve to provoke these changes.
Iran, along with Russia, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, uses PSYWAR to fight an enemy or opposition. Although Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, President Obama, along with other UN Security Council permanent members and Germany, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, the goal of which was to reduce uranium stockpiles to prevent this Islamic country from building a nuclear program. In exchange, the US lifted sanctions. However, in 2018, President Trump withdrew from the agreement stating that it was projected for ten years and after its expiration, Iran would be free to restart its nuclear program. It also did not cover Iran’s support for violent Middle Eastern groups. Trump reestablished sanctions on Iran’s oil industries and, with time, on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle. In 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Forces–Quds Force (IRGC–QF) were designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
In the wake of these events, the Islamic Republic intensified its Islamic revolutionary confrontation against its powerful rival. PSYWAR was the most propitious technique at this level of conflict without a declaration of war because of its low cost and non–lethality. It is a powerful tool because of its strong impact on human minds that can compel them to change their behavior. The official media–i.e. Hispan TV (Tehran–based Spanish language network with coverage of Spain and Latin America), Press TV (English language satellite channel), and social media (e.g. Twitter and Facebook)–moved with their three shades of propaganda. All of them spread harmful information on the United States and promoted Islamic culture abroad.
The COVID-19 pandemic created the opportunity for Iran to use PSYWAR against its enemy. The rampant spread of cases of the virus and resulting deaths and the ban on its oil industry plunged Iran’s economy into a tailspin. Many in the international community requested that sanctions be lifted, but this was met with US opposition. Instead, President Trump offered medical assistance, which the Supreme Leader refused. This offer became a perfect black propaganda tool for the government. According to Times, the Supreme Leader exposed a conspiracy theory stating that the virus was built for Iran “using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.” In addition, “the doctors would come to Iran to see the effect of the poison.” This “fake news” seemed to be truthful because it originated from the country’s most recognized figure’s public speech.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long–standing tradition of using PSYWAR operations to underline its opposition within Iran and abroad. For instance, Reuters cited Iran’s Nile Net Online, an online broadcaster, as a part of an influence operation based in Tehran that has more than 115,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Iran has a plethora of sophisticated cyber worriers who pursue their PSYOP in the online warfare theater to inflict damage in real space. In the digital and technological age, “fake news” and distorted information circulating online are the most used mechanism to change public opinion or even government behavior. Without a doubt, even in this crisis scenario, a change of regime is even more difficult to accomplish owing to the hard-line inner circle’s appropriate use of fake news to discredit the US offer of assistance and reinforce trust among its citizens.