The Atlantic Council’s report on Iranian influence operations3 minutes read

The Atlanic Council has released a report on Iranian influence operations, Iranian digital influence efforts: Guerrilla broadcasting for the twenty-first century.

Here are things that I agree or disagree with:

Iran’s digital influence efforts involve centralized goals and disparate agents. Different elements of Iran’s digital propaganda apparatus evidence the involvement of different government agencies. It is not clear how, or if, these agencies coordinate their operations.

Correct. This is what makes it special. Iranian influence operations are way more institutionalised than any other state. While the hierarchy hasn’t clearly been decoded, the role of ‘soft war’ organisations like Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly hints at a defined process for setting geopolitical imperatives and achiveving narrative control.

These goals are closely tied to Iran’s geopolitical interests. Nearly all content spread by Iran’s digital influence efforts relates directly to its worldview or specific foreign policy objectives. Consequently, it is easier to identify the operations of Iran than those of other actors like Russia, whose content is more likely to be politically agnostic.

Easier said than understood. I have seen cases in India where the Iranian ‘soft war’ elements deeply infiltrated political parties across the regional and national spectrum. I have seen them fomenting protests and encouraging unrests at a national university, for an issue that was very topical and local. The mode of operation was hybrid: fuelling the narrative in both meatspace and cyberspace. So, it’s not all high-level stuff as one may imagine. There are lot of ‘micro-narratives’ floating around.

Much of this Iranian content cannot be characterized as “disinformation”… Although Iran has certainly engaged in the spread of falsehood, this does not represent the majority—or even a significant portion—of its known digital influence efforts…If the principal intent of Russia’s digital influence efforts is to distract and dismay, Iran’s goal is most often to persuade.

Again, I won’t be so sure. Indeed, Iran is clamouring to offer its side of the story, but how and when do these influence operations metamorphoise into disinformation-driven direct action remains an enigma.

Although Iranians masqueraded as any number of different Twitter users—an unemployed French journalist, or a Venezuelan football commentator—they put little effort into establishing convincing identities or infiltrating the wider political dialogue. Instead, they relentlessly promoted their own material, willing to rapidly switch from one persona to another if it could improve their chances of engagement.

Okay, I vehemently disagree with this statement. First, as I mentioned, the Iranian operations easily criss-crossed from cyberspace into meatspace to meet their objectives. Second, the Iranians actually hire local, city-level stringers to contribute content to the propaganda websites. That surely requires a very well-oiled overseas infiltration machinery. Third, their decentralised approach should not be confused with hubris. Their content dissemination networks (like rapidly switched Telegram channels) are clearly delineated from content publishing platforms. You miss out on a lot of nuance if the Iranian OPSEC is seen purely from the lens of cyber tradecraft. I know of a case where they hired a city-level Pakistani political operative who was affiliated to a sectarian group. The operative was well-versed with technology and had set up a web hosting company. The same company not only hosted the website of Iranian Embassy in Pakistan but also managed the infrastructure of Iranian influence operations in South Asia (Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal). Another example: a local sectarian activist in India with a prolific Instagram page is also seen hobnobbing with top Iranian clergy during his trips to Tehran. Did I mention that the Iranians were actually managing some of the most popular Indian Facebook pages thought to be amplifying popular dissenting narratives and media personalities?