USA's Soft War Against Iran

When media is weapon, perception is target


Photo: VOA-PNN free service in Iran through iphone

For the last few decades, Iran has been making headlines in global media for its defiant standing against western powers on a number of issues. It is suspected by western powers that Iran is running its clandestine nuclear program for military purpose but the US officials are yet to find any solution. They have tried bullying the current conservative regime, spent million dollars to bring about a moderate government, but all these steps brought anything but success. Many thought that the issue of imposing sanctions can be discussed in UN Security Council in coming months, but still, Iran can sleep well on its expensive and lucrative 'energy' pillow as Security Council members like China and Russia are becoming more dependent on Iranian energy. The last resort, military attack on Iran, can be too costly for the USA. If you know Iran and its unique Persian culture, you should better prepare for a united Iranian population before launching any kind of attack on their soil. Whether it is surgical or otherwise, an air strike will inflame the Iranian nationalism and people will rally around the green flag and placards with Ahmadinejad's smiling picture. And you can bet, the US Generals don't want to see that.
It seems that it is not the Generals but the hackers and journalists, who are the new soldiers, fighting a new kind of war against Iran. Covertly, USA is using delicate technological or cyber warfare to disrupt and undermine nuclear establishments of Iran. It is interesting that this cyber ventures began during the Bush era but accelerated under Obama. Even Iran admitted that its nuclear program has been hampered due to some unknown reasons. Overtly, USA is funding billions of dollars for radio, television, internet and satellite based broadcasting popular among the tech loving youths of Iran. These funding programs also aim to assist pro-democracy groups, public diplomacy initiatives and cultural and educational fellowships. This notion of using techniques of psychological operation, termed as 'soft war' is the preferred choice of many political experts to transform the image of Uncle Sam from foe to friend in order to topple the existing Islamic Republic system through popular uprisings.
The current regime of Iran is also well aware of and prepared for the ongoing soft war. The regime is taking counter measures to fight this unusual battle. Islamic Development Organization of Iran sees the soft war as 'any 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'. The soft war is not a new phenomenon. This concept was designed and used in the period of cold war by a collaboration of political scientists and officials of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pentagon. According to them, one of the prominent causes behind the collapse of the Soviet Union was the success of the US in her efficiency to control the global media.
Apart from using the media, USA is trying to disrupt Iran's nuclear program by using new tools. A serious computer worm, called Stuxnet, is designed and used to sabotage the nuclear plant of Iran. According to the Seattle Times, published on September 26, 2010, the time stamp on the Stuxnet virus reveals that it was created in January 2010. It means that not Bush, but under the supervision of Obama's administration, this cyber weapon was unleashed. According to Computer World magazine, Stuxnet is , "a piece of malware so devious in its use of unpatched vulnerabilities, so sophisticated in its multipronged approach, that the security researchers who tore it apart believe it may be the work of state-backed professionals." It is also suspected that Israel was behind the production of the worm along with professionals of USA to sabotage or to take control the operating system for Bushehr nuclear reactor of Iran (Trevor Butterworth, 'The War against Iran Has Already Started'). If Stuxnet is really as dangerous as it is suspected, then it can change the course of warfare. Just think that without firing any shot, and without even launching a single missile, a war can be won. It can also make the contemporary warfare obsolete and old-fashioned.
Beside cyber war, USA has started its soft war with another strategic weapon- media. For years, western powers have been trying to infiltrate Iran's local media. It is not an easy task to do as Iran's domestic media is heavily fortified by censorship; even satellite dishes are illegal there. The U.S. government is running two broadcast services from outside Iran: Voice of America's Persian News Network (PNN) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Radio Farda. Farda also runs an extensive Persian-language website(Greg Bruno, 'The Media Landscape in Iran'). In addition to PNN and Radio Farda's core TV and radio services, they maintain two websites with extensive contents. They also transmit local, international and U.S.-focused programming via blogs, Twitter feeds and news alerts to mobile phones; upload videos to YouTube; and manage dynamic Face book pages. (Robert McMahon, 'U.S.-funded media and the "softwar" in Iran').
Younger generation of Iran likes to spend time browsing social media. Beside twitter and face book users, there are many active bloggers in Iran. Media experts say that Iran has one of the world's most active blogospheres. Iranian government estimates place Internet users at 23 million, while more than 53 million cell phones are in use. Iranian's love of technology and internet made it a lucrative ground for USA to campaign and continue the soft war. To reach the Iranians, PNN launched a new application for Apple's iPhone and the Android/Google phone that provides news updates and allows users to send links to VOA stories through Facebook, Twitter and e-mail in Persian language. VOA has created an "app" for Apple's iPhone and Android/Google phone that allows Iranians to upload videos from their phones directly to VOA's Persian News Network (PNN) (US international broadcasting: is anybody listening?, Report of Committee on Foreign Relations). By using this technology anyone can upload any videos of demonstration, protests or any other incidents that Iranian regime may possibly hide. With this device any Iranian can be a contributor of PNN. However, ensuring authenticity and neutrality are major challenges for this type of 'crowd source' journalism.
Iran government is not sitting idly knowing all these initiatives and huge funding of US's international broadcasting. They have taken several steps to create blockade on the way of intended psychological motivation of USA. The regime is trying to counter US efforts by jamming broadcasts, blocking websites and infiltrating Face book accounts. Iranian administration is also spending a considerable amount of money to train people for monitoring various websites and also for writing pro-regime comments in social media and blogs. On the other hand, in order to avoid jamming, Persian News Network is currently using 7 frequencies on 6 different satellites. The use of various technologies by the US authority and the Iranian efforts to neutralize those attempts has indeed become an interesting 'cat and mouse' game to watch.
After the upheaval of the Iran's presidential election in June 2009, government enforced control on the major domestic media. It is alleged that 40 journalists were arrested within the first month of the election (Greg Bruno, 'The Media Landscape in Iran'). Both the BBC and VOA were included on a list of "subversive" organizations while Iranians were banned to contact with them. When the US funded Radio Farda broadcasted a program on the case of Sakin- eh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning for committing alleged adultery, the current regime of Iran decided to take tougher position on the foreign based broadcasting stations.
Though many are optimistic about the US funded international broadcasting, it is really a big question whether Iranians will be influenced by these motivational initiatives. One can cite that this type of soft war brought success for USA at the time of cold war, but this time it is a different scenario. It is very difficult for USA to understand the cultural and psychological impact of their broadcasting on their Iranian audience. It's true that similar programs were successful in the former USSR and in other socialist societies in inspiring civil societies to welcome western democracy; but contemporary Iran is a different case altogether. None can convincingly suggest that the Iranian people do really want to hear from the western world, whereas in the former USSR of the late 80s, it was evident that an eager audience was willing to follow the capitalist path.
Whether USA can or cannot win this soft war, one thing is very clear. In this era of technology, it is really impossible to control the flow of information. Social networks and new media have turned everyone into a 'media'. Images of the killing of Neda Agha Soltan, during the upheaval following the June 2009 election in Iran, can be an example of this type of citizen journalism. These images were recorded in a cell phone and were distributed across the world in moments. Though journalism experts say that the so-called new media cannot replace traditional forms of reporting and a limited number - roughly one-third - of Iranians have access to the Internet, it is true that flow of information and connection with the outer world cannot be blocked. Now, by using new media, Iranian population can get access to various options; the decision to choose is up to them. And the success of 'soft war' will depend on the level of its influence on that decision-making process.

The author is a lecturer in International Relations, University of Chittagong.

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