Iran’s successful information warfare against its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, paves way for important political victories, easing the Islamic Republic’s geopolitical goals of regional and global expansionism and imperialism. Character assassination and attacks on reputations have been a penchant of Iran’s intelligence and vast agency network both internally, and around the world, including Europe and the United States.
A type of psych ops aimed at discrediting dissenters at home and abroad, and distracting from its own human rights violations and global security threats, Iran has learned this strategy from the Soviet Union, which for a time supported Khomeini’s newly established regime.
Modern day Russia, which is heavily engaged in sowing chaos through assorted active measures, including vast online propaganda and discreditation of politicians and institutions in Western countries, has likewise been closely aligned with Iran in defense and security arenas, and has closely cooperated on assorted intelligence matters.
Iran, however, has been much more subtle in exacting her influence, and for that reason, perhaps, escaped the attention of governments and private organizations, successfully implementing its plans. The ability to coopt important Western players and institutions has shifted the “balance of power” in the region – in reality, a competition for power between Iran and KSA – in the Islamic Republic’s favor, quite noticeably, even after President Trump’s administration shifted away from open support for the nuclear deal and started censuring some of Iran’s aggressive activity.
Iran managed to utilize a deceptive lobby group, NIAC, headed by Dr. Trita Parsi, and masquerading as a human rights organization and a network of Iranian activists, throughout the Obama administration as the sole voice of Iranian American community for instance. NIAC, which claimed to represent all of Iranian Americans, actually exaggerates its membership numbers, yet has infiltrated enough Iranian human rights organizations to effectively shut down the most vocal opponents of the regime. Rather, the only Iranian Americans it ever represented have been “reformist” supporters of President Rouhani and his ilk.
NIAC likewise managed to prevent non-Persian Iranian American nationals from ever gaining voice in the West; thus, Iranian strategic oppression non-Fars, non-Khomeinist brand of Shi’a nations both within its current borders and in the countries it has invaded either directly or through proxy armies and support, remains largely unknown in the West and uncovered by the press. For that reason, Europe and even the United States tend to underestimate Iran’s danger not only to its own citizens, and immediate neighbors but other countries in the region, and also to any country that it can destabilize through terrorism and meddling.
None of the most serious sanctions by the US or EU have been aimed at curbing Iranian human rights violations or violent colonial policies. And yet, it is conventional warfare, terrorism, and bellicose imperialist expansionism that represent Iran’s true goals and danger, rather than its distracting nuclear policies, which kept the world focused on a potential danger, while ignoring immediate and ongoing threats.
However, NIAC was but one arm of Iran’s highly successful information warfare strategy that enabled and protected its wider geopolitical aims. It has managed to coopt agenda-driven and largely unprofessional and non-expert former Obama administration officials and their ideological supporters in the Western media and the think tank world to not only attack any firm policy that could be interpreted by Iran as a potential to reimpose sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal, but also are going after Saudi Arabia’s policy. In particular, Iran has used these assets to conduct an attack campaign against the CrownPrince Mohammed bin Salman, who only assumed that post in June of 2017 – yet is already being described by numerous consistently similar sources as “dangerous”, “crazy”, “incompetent”, “corrupt”, and “bloodthirsty”.
Same sources have adopted unsourced conspiracy theories and inaccurately parsed information to support their description. Upon further examination, such claims appear to have basis in political agendas, rather than any factual foundation. Laughable and baseless as they may be, however, taken in concert they influence public opinion, policymakers, already suspicious of KSA’s past history, and even the administration.
What’s in it for these opinion shapers? Quite simply, they disagree with Mohammed bin Salman’s more nationalist approach to foreign policy that disturbs their potential for cozy deals with Iran. Second, they have not yet established a close relationship with him the way they had with his predecessor – but his fight against corruption inside KSA may have them worry that their own benefits from lobbying efforts for a favorable opinion in the news outlets may be endangered by his very existence.
They may be working in concert to destabilize Saudi Arabia, in exchange for greater access to more successful Iranian American corporate lobbyists. However, these influencers also may be hoping to discredit the Crown Prince and by successfully portraying him as unable to manage even basic things, hope to engineer his political downfall and the return of his “experienced” and familiar predecessor who was not inclined to shake up existing and convenient relationships.
To put it bluntly, many of the existing media and think tank institutions in the US are corrupt, and Islamic Republic is making good use of greed, as any intelligence agency worth its salt will try to do – though usually in the process of information gathering, rather than actively undermining other countries and their governments. Yet, negative publicity in the press is just the tip of the iceberg. The far more damaging ongoing campaign against KSA is the politicized and disingenuous use of “human rights” to undermine the Crown Prince, who is still trying to consolidate his power while handling multiple internal and external challenges – ranging from modernizing the country and liberalizing its economy to facing off the Iranian threat in multiple preexisting spheres of influence and battling for leadership.
Iran’s own human rights record is, of course, abysmal – which is why, it is cleverly acting indirectly, using its agents of influence in the US, the particularities of US foreign policy, and European allies to focus on Yemen. While the foreign policy establishment has for decades stomached various human rights violations by various actors as needed, so long as those allies acted in US interests, Yemen provides a convenient excuse because it involves a perceived interference in another country. The succession of events has been truly disastrous. To wit,
1. Houthis staged rebellion against Saudi-backed Yemenite government.
2. Eventually, Iran got directly involved and started backing Houthis with increasingly advanced weapons.
3. Saudis launched an aerial bombardment campaign in support of their allies.
4. However, due to geographic complexity, this proved difficult without ground troops. US refused to get involved other than by providing logistical assistance.
5. Houthis embedded themselves among civilians, using the latter as human shields and vastly increasing the numbers of casualties.
6. Eventually, Houthis received missiles modeled closely after Iranian weapons, and started aiming them at Saudi Arabia, precipitating a response.
7. Saudis launched a humanitarian aid blockade, because Iran has been cynically using humanitarian vessels to smuggle weapons used to attack Saudi allies, civilians, and Saudis themselves.
8. The international community is in uproar over the blockade, because the fact of terrorism and human shield usage is not being reported by Western or other media, or written up in resolutions and human rights report by the UN and others.
9. The situation becomes increasingly embarrassing to the Trump administration, that is not involved in that conflict, and is not, therefore focused on gathering information on Houthi terrorism. President Trump is already angry with the Saudi government for perceived deception regarding the Gulf Crisis, and is not inclined to believe their claims about the conflict.
10. President Trump asks the Saudis to lift the blockade.
11. KSA promises to do so, but the blockade is not lifted, as Houthi missile attacks intensify.
12. President Trump gets angry and publicly demands that the humanitarian blockade is lifted, publicly threatening Congressional sanctions. From a legal standpoint, Congressional sanctions are significantly more serious than a temporary sanctioning by the Treasury alone, because they require an extensive process to be voted into law, and once President begins enforcing them, the law is much harder to reverse. President Trump has been known to publicly call out allies on alleged human rights violations and has punished Egypt for allegedly allowing North Korea’s arms trade on its territory in violation of sanctions. bywithholding a significant amount of aid. Whether or not, it is appropriate to berate and humiliate allies in public over foreign policy disagreements is a separate discussion, but the Trump administration perceives any alleged deception as betrayal and has no qualms about making this known in public, however damaging such response may be in the long term.
13. Ultimately, however, this step is a coup de grace for Iran, which now utilizes the opportunity to further damage Saudi reputation as a country, and what is at least as damaging, to land a blow against Mohammed bin Salman.
Iran does not need to comment on Yemen. It easily manipulates others into doing so. The United States is buying into the narrative that the Yemen campaign by the Saudis has been poorly planned, sloppily conducted, and caused more harm than good. The United States is threatening to punish Saudi Arabia through sanctions: in reality, however, the punishment would be against its leadership, a humiliation to the national prestige. B y having this dispute and threats publicized, Trump unwittingly plays into Iranian hands because this narrative portrays Saudi Arabia as a pawn of the United States, rather than an independent regional leader.
The Trump administration has no reason to break relations with KSA; it is satisfied with the arms trading, and merely wants to make sure that civilized behavior at times of war is complied with. It cannot control what Iran is doing, because the Islamic Republic has no interest in US opinion. However, KSA does not wish for a public rift with an important ally against the Iranian threat, and here, the US has leverage.
Of course, Iran is using this situation towards its own ends – to undermine Saudi image in the region, and to show Saudis as weak, Western pawns, and its leaders as people who are poor strategists, who cannot fight and win wars, and who get slapped on the hands, when they act out of line. Iran, by presenting this disinformation to the Trump administration, is also aiming to sow discord between KSA and the United States. The US, however, is not the most serious of Iran’s tools against Saudi Arabia for the time being, as it is distracted with internal matters, and other foreign policy considerations.
Europe, to that end, has been far more useful. Most recently, Germany effectively sanctioned Saudi Arabia and other coalition members, halting the sale of arms to them, for involvement in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has one of the best equipped militaries in the world, so at issue here, of course is political damage: all good psych ops seek to demoralize the enemy. Iran is using this public discreditation to undermine KSA’s attempt at leadership in the area. And indeed, the steady stream has had some negativity: Saudi Arabia is having trouble getting many of the battleground countries to follow its lead, and its status in the international community is deteriorating. Informational manipulation has real life consequences, and helps Iran in its pursuit. Moreover, we know that Germany’s actions here are disingenuous.
Because Iran is not directly acknowledged as being involved in Yemen, it will not suffer this same consequence, and thus politically, Europe is not holding Iran responsible for its backing of Houthis and its own contribution to the humanitarian disaster. Indeed, despite loud proclamations about human rights, Germany remains heavily invested in Iran, giving credence to the idea that this step was less about Yemeni humanitarian situation, than doing favors for Iran. In fact, Iran Europe trade has reached 18 billion euros in November 2017, at a 57% increases from 11 months prior.
Additionally, EU is hosting an Iranian MP responsible for the protest crackdown. So much, then, for humanitarian concerns. This charade of hypocrisy is based entirely in financial self-interests. The question, of course is, how is that EU perceives it has more to gain from Iran’s poor economy, which has achieved little to no growth thanks to the expenditures on foreign warfare, than with Saudi Arabia, which has been stable and actively trying to liberalize its economy?
There are several possible explanations, which Iran has used towards pushing its agenda.
First, Iran managed to pay off people that they do not actually care about the shareholders of their companies, the internal Iranian corruption, and all indicators of high risk.
Second, the risk assessors have been overly naive in this get-rich-quick scheme, which is bound to backfire sooner or later.
Third, this may actually be a way to use perceived Saudi vulnerabilities to extract concessions, particular in light of what some analysts perceive as financial uncertainty that may beset the country in four to five years from now.
Fourth, EU may be trying to play off both sides against each other, and see who offers more. However, EU’s persistent support for the pro-Iran line has been ongoing, despite previously strong relations with Saudi Arabia, and despite evidence that Iranian state-backed companies, rather than Western inventors are actually making financial gains.
Fifth, and most likely, EU perceives that Iran is winning on all fronts, and sees no reason to stake its future with the losers. Iran has been successful in suppressing protests; it has expanded its military reach and political influence; it has infiltrated the European street in a way that Saudi Arabia has simply been unable to do. Iran has utilized cultural diplomacy, educational exchanges, and seeming openness of its agents of influence to long term presence in the West to build trust, relationships, and to exploit vulnerabilities.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Western societies has largely consisted of wealth accumulation, defense lobbying, and partying among wealthy young people, which led to few real long-term bridges. The same effect is observed in the United States; though average Americans tend to be suspicious of both countries, and even many of those who favored the nuclear deal, distrusted the Iranian regime.
To some extent, then, KSA’s perceived loss of leadership becomes a self-fulfilling policy, in that the more Western countries think that KSA is unlikely to prevail against Iran, the more they will be critical of actions they would otherwise have ignored or supported, and the more they will hedge their bets on the perceived winner. Similarly, non-Western states may be less likely to follow KSA’s lead seeing that it no longer enjoys the support and desire from the United States and Western state. Perception, to some extent, creates reality in politics.
Iran understood this well, and spared no expense, in creating a sophisticated information warfare machinery that studied every Saudi vulnerability, and took advantage of it, particularly focusing on destroying the image of its leadership and especially helping create the impression that the Crown Prince is weak against Iran, is a tyrant, and the country, with him, has no future. It is counting on Saudi Arabia to continue making the same mistakes as it has done before, because it has far greater understanding of Saudi vulnerabilities than Saudi has of Iran’s own strategy or its weaknesses. And it is also counting for these issues to evade discussion in Western outlets, which have no interest in serious intelligence analysis, and are dominated by ideologues who are willing to settle for superficial analysis pre-baked opposition research firms, intelligence agencies, corporations, and other bodies with an agenda.
What Iran, however, is not counting on is that Saudi Arabia’s increasing status as an underdog may yet prove to be its greatest weapon.
Furthermore, the arrogant assumption that Saudi Arabia cannot change its foreign policies, cannot learn from her mistakes, and will never have the tools to focus on understanding the thorny issues at the heart of her problems today may just lead to Iran’s own undoing.
There are, in fact, many ways Saudi Arabia can pivot and turn its seeming loss of credibility and influence around to become a more influential, positive involved, and widely supported leader than ever before.
What those steps are will be explored in greater depth in the future.