Iran & the Soft War

By Dr Monroe Price, Guest Contributor

Skyline of Tehran. Photo courtesy of CGCS.

I recently published an essay on “Soft War and Iran” in the International Journal of Communication. The essay represents some interesting perspectives and relationships to the work of the Center for Global Communication Studies.

First, it tries to draw a line between “soft power” and what might be considered a new category, namely “soft war.” Because the two phrases are similar, it sounds a bit like a continuum and, perhaps, in some way, it is. But I think that given the way the concept is evolving, it should be considered doctrinally different. Soft power is often seen as a way of gaining positive identification or support for the sending nation. Maybe there’s an iron fist and maybe it’s not iron—but soft power is about the velvet glove. On the other hand, “soft war” is about the impact on a receiving audience concerning its support for its governing regime. In the essay I drew on Iranian sources to examine how the country itself sees soft war:

For example, one can look to statements of the Islamic Development Organization of Iran (IDO), an institute with vast media activities and holdings that was created by the Iranian regime after 1979 to promote Islamic revolution values both internally and externally. The IDO defines soft war as:

[A]ny kind of psychological warfare action and media propaganda which targets the society and induces the opposite side to accept the failure without making any military conflict. The subversion, internet war, creation of radio-television networks and spreading the rumors are the important forms of Soft War. This war intends to weaken the intellection and thought of the given society and also causes the socio-political order to be annihilated via the media propaganda. (Islamic Development Organization, 2010)

In 2009, Ali Mohammad Na’ini, then deputy head of the Basij militia for cultural and social affairs, adumbrated the concept. He linked soft war to the uses of soft power using the 1979 revolution itself as an example:

The main principle of that revolution was the soft power of the revolution, namely the ability of the leadership to arouse an entire nation… The main aim behind the Soft War is to force the system to disintegrate from within in view of its values, beliefs, its main fundamental characteristics, and its identity. Any system, especially a system that is based on certain beliefs and values, owes its identity and its existence to those beliefs and values. It is based on the models and principles on the basis of which it continues its political, social and economic life. . . .

If the identity or the fundamental beliefs and values and the main model of a revolution in different social, political, cultural and economic fields are challenged by non-military means the adherence of the society to that system would be challenged. Quite naturally this would lead to the ineffectiveness and the invalidation of that model, it will weaken the different pillars of the society, and subsequently the system will start to disintegrate from within. Therefore, Soft War aims at confronting the main blueprint and the main ideas of a political system in different fields. By making use of its soft power, namely its culture and values, its cultural and political values and its cultural products the enemy will try to win the trust of the public [in the enemy’s values]. In this way, it infiltrates the different intellectual, mental and spiritual layers of the society, and it will undermine the strength and validity of that system and will sap public trust in it. Thus, it will destroy the effectiveness of a system and would give rise to instability, and that instability and lack of trust in turn will result in civil resistance. (Jahan News, 2009)

These, then, are the distinctive strategies of a soft war: to “force the system to disintegrate from within.” The strategies focus on a society’s values and beliefs, and on its identity. The imputed strategy is one of encouraging internal disintegration of support for the government by undermining the value system central to national identity.

The external intervenor—in this case, the United States specifically and the West in general—is said to seek the “ineffectiveness and the invalidation” of Iran’s organizing model. It is a strategy of jiu-jitsu, establishing doubt so that the “main ideas of a political system” would be rendered susceptible to analysis that would lead to their unraveling. To do this requires a persistent targeting of “the different intellectual, mental and spiritual layers of the society,” weakening public trust at each step.

This discussion also underscores a second aspect of the essay. My portrayal of “soft war” was designed to understand the concept as it is articulated at the receiving end. It is designed, as much as possible, to gain access to internal Iranian discourse. I was able, if at all, to do this, because of the work of our Iran Media Program and the research done by a very few scholars, including Babak Rahimi and Reza Marashi. It is very difficult to probe this receiver-related framing, but it is an essential step in understanding.

A third aspect of the essay is looking at what might be called the “bureaucracy of information management” in Iran. Here there’s some examination of the fortress that is Iran—efforts to control incoming information—and conversely Iran on the offense; how a reaction to soft war yields efforts to affect external environments.

All of this links to ongoing research at the Center for Global Communication Studies. We will be conducting a workshop on the concept of Soft War with a group of experts. We hope this may lead to more writing and reflection on the subject. We also hope to expand understanding of the concept of a bureaucracy of information management.

Dr Monroe Price is Director of the Center for Global Communication Studies in Philadelphia and the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research in London.  Original post found at CGCS Media Wire.

Related posts