Danny Citrinowicz and Ari Ben-Am
Since 1979, Iran and its proxy groups have tried to export its model of revolutionary ideology to establish Iranian hegemony in the Islamic world. Iran has taken great pains to position itself as the “defender” of Islam and its values, and in particular Shia Islam, globally. However, Iran’s antagonistic and openly confrontation relationship with the West — particularly the U.S., which it views as the “Great Satan” — has made Iran a role model for those who oppose the current global order.
Iran has employed a two-pronged approach to best export its revolution and promote its interests abroad. Iran’s strategy utilizes hard and soft power, hybrid warfare or “grey zone” tactics to achieve its goals and spread its brand of militant Islamic ideology throughout the Middle East and beyond. In terms of hard power, Iran gives financial, ideological, and material support to global terrorist proxies loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Iran’s backing of terrorist organizations and extremist movements has created Iranian spheres of influence throughout the region in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Yemen, while threatening the internal stability of many others, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Most researchers today focus on hard power tactics used by Iran and Hezbollah, the truest and most powerful Arab offshoot of the Iranian Revolution. However, it is important to examine Iran’s soft power and hybrid warfare approach, since these are increasingly important and urgent aspects of its strategy. Propagating Iranian influence and hybrid warfare empowers the regime by providing it with a wider base of strategic support — politically, financially, and operationally. By utilizing their worldwide network of religious and cultural organizations, including universities, charities, and the Iranian and Lebanese diaspora, Iran and Hezbollah have been able to draw in millions of people around the world to support their political objectives, fundraising efforts, and even their terrorist cells.
Iran’s soft-power and global propaganda and influence operations are unified under the regime and include its official institutions, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and state media outlets, as well as less overtly “formal” mouthpieces like educational centers and religious organizations. All of Iran’s information warfare and influence operation entities are centrally funded by the regime to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually — with external propaganda primarily under the auspices of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and the MFA’s “Expatriates” program receiving significant budget increases in recent years at the expense of educational centers. These budget increases and general turn to new media have been accompanied by increasing investment in and attention paid to influencing online discourse via coordinated disinformation campaigns on social media and messaging platforms.
This report will examine numerous facets of Iran’s external propaganda and influence operations. The primary focus will be on under-researched elements, such as the utilization of new media to reach targeted audiences in the developing world, and covert operations in the wider context of Iran’s integrated influence operations apparatus.
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