Small Wars Journal

The United States’ Soft War With Iran

The United States’ Soft War With Iran by Seth G. Jones and Danika Newlee – Center for Strategic and International Studies Report

Iran is engaged in a soft war, or jang-e narm, with the United States. Iran uses formal and informal means to influence populations across the globe and has expanded its information campaign utilizing the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, cultural centers, universities, and charitable foundations. But Iran’s authoritarian political system and attempts to control access to information make it vulnerable to a U.S. and Western information campaign. Iran’s weaknesses​ suggest that a major component of U.S. competition with Tehran should be ideological.

While there has been considerable focus in the United States on Iran’s military capabilities and activities, there has been far less attention devoted to Iran’s “soft power” and its efforts to expand influence. This brief focuses on Iranian soft power and asks: How do Iranian leaders view soft power? How does Iran attempt to export soft power? And what are Iran’s weaknesses? To answer these questions, this report compiles quantitative and qualitative information— some of which is new—on elements of Iran’s soft power.

The report makes three main arguments. First, Iran is explicitly engaged in a “soft war,” or jang-e narm, with the West—especially the United States.1 As former Iranian intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi remarked, “We do not have a physical war with the enemy, but we are engaged in heavy information warfare with the enemy.”2 Second, Iran uses both formal and informal instruments to wage jang-e narm. Examples range from official television broadcasting through organizations like the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting to informal cultural centers. Third, Iran has weaknesses and vulnerabilities that stem, in part, from its authoritarian system and self-perception as the vanguard of Shia Islam, which have undermined the legitimacy of its message and created inefficiency and corruption. The United States’ greatest strengths—its support of democratic principles, open markets, and free press—are Iran’s most significant weaknesses. Iran’s authoritarian political system and attempt to control access to information make it vulnerable to a U.S. and Western information campaign. But U.S. efforts to ideologically compete with Iran have been ad hoc and poorly funded. The United States and other Western governments need to step up efforts to compete with Iran through soft power, not just focus on military, financial, and diplomatic means…

Read the entire report.