Iran’s ‘influence operations’ in the region not adequately countered

If the US is unclear what its goals are in the Middle East, it will be hard to develop a narrative that connects with people in the region.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Iranian protesters wave placards denouncing the US and Israel during a demonstration in Tehran, last December. (AFP)
Overdosing on emotions. Iranian protesters wave placards denouncing the US and Israel during a demonstration in Tehran, last December. (AFP)

“No longer do Arab governments have the monopoly on information flows in their countries” and, as a result, the Iranian government, in particular, has utilised social media, internet news sites and Arabic-language television channels to influence the Arab public. Neither the United States nor the Arab world are responding sufficiently to the Iranian challenge.

So concluded a report by the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think-tank with close ties to Democratic Party foreign policy experts.

Sarah Alaoui, the report’s author, said: “Social media platforms have made it easier for US adversaries such as Russia and Iran to disseminate disinformation as news — including anti-American narratives — on an unprecedented scale and at the same time make it more difficult for the United States to respond.”

The Iranian government has used “soft power” methods as a “key purveyor of anti-American rhetoric in the Middle East.” While Tehran cannot hope to counter US “hard power” in the region — such as economic sanctions and military capabilities — it has proven highly effective at using relatively inexpensive “soft power” to compete with US influence.

Tehran has targeted its disinformation efforts on neighbouring Iraq, where its on-the-ground influence already is great, and Lebanon, where its Hezbollah allies effectively control the national government.

Alaoui argued that the United States has relied almost exclusively on “hard power levers” to counter Iran but has failed to undertake “a significant, overt effort to tackle a more insidious and largely overlooked dimension of Iran’s influence operations in the region: its public diplomacy outreach aimed at shaping the information landscape and public opinion of key audiences in the Arab world.”

Iran’s public influence campaign has focused on themes that have the potential to resonate with Arab publics — such as anti-imperialism, Islamic unity and the Palestinian cause — and are designed to turn the Arab public away from not only the United States but from their own governments as well.

Alaoui noted that one of Tehran’s common methods is to spread conspiracy theories — such as the theory that the Islamic State (ISIS) was a US and Israeli creation, a rumour that was actively promoted during the campaign against ISIS in Mosul. During a decisive period of that campaign, members of Iraq’s Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces spread rumours that the US military was protecting and hiding ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Saudi Arabia’s public diplomacy campaign in Iraq since 2014, said Alaoui, “may represent the most promising example of Gulf Arab public diplomacy in the Middle East.”

This campaign has included everything from re-establishing commercial air travel between the countries to organising a friendly football match between the two national teams. The main theme of Riyadh’s public diplomacy efforts in Iraq is Arab unity — a powerful narrative to counter Iranian interference in Iraq.

The US State Department also maintains a public diplomacy operation but has been handicapped in the Middle East by the fact that so many aspects of US policy in the region are unpopular and thus not easy to sell to regional audiences. Alaoui argued that under President Donald Trump the United States no longer practises a “values-based approach to diplomacy,” making it hard to develop an attractive US mega-narrative to counter the Iranian narrative, which appeals at a visceral level to many people in the region and generally conforms to Iran’s foreign policy.

Alaoui expressed concern that, while the Trump administration has made countering Iran its number one regional priority, it is not making a serious effort “to develop a complementary public diplomacy strategy or an American counternarrative that directly competes with Iran in the influence space of key Arab countries.”

The fundamental problem is that a public diplomacy campaign cannot compensate for unpopular policies or lack of a broad coherent strategy. If the United States is unclear what its goals are in the Middle East, it will be hard to develop a narrative that connects with people in the region.

At the same time, Iran’s narrative can be undermined by making people aware of the reality of Tehran’s policies, which includes support for a regime in Damascus that has virtually destroyed the Syrian nation as well as involvement in the internal affairs of Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Alaoui concluded her report by arguing that the United States must devote more resources and energy to a soft-power public diplomacy campaign in the Middle East — but this suggestion does not address the fact that the United States is fundamentally devoid of a convincing narrative.

Perhaps it would be also more fruitful for Arab states to take up the challenge of countering the Iranian narrative — the way Saudi Arabia has done in Iraq — and energise their own largely untapped “soft power.”