Protests throughout Iran show that some of the biggest threats to the Iranian regime are its own policies. The Trump administration has drawn attention to these abuses through powerful sanctions. However, the United States has several other tools to exploit Iran’s mistakes without engaging in conventional warfare. A political warfare strategy could fill this gap through additional diplomatic, economic, information, cyber and military capabilities to pressure the regime where it is vulnerable.
The architect of America’s Cold War-era containment strategy, George Kennan, described political warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” This became a crucial element of the U.S. grand strategy, providing options short of war to undermine the Soviet Union and compel changes in its behavior.
Since then, however, many aspects of political warfare have fallen out of use by the United States. In sharp contrast, Iran is pursuing a sophisticated political warfare campaign central to its efforts to expand its influence across the Middle East at the direct expense of the United States and U.S. allies.
Strategic communications from Tehran’s diplomatic and military leaders focus on delegitimizing American policies and presence throughout the region, including by portraying Iran as the bulwark against a broad conspiracy between the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State. Iran also provides valuable political, economic and military support to anti-American parties and militias in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Yemen. It surrounds Israel with similar proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.
Meanwhile, Iran swarms ships in the Persian Gulf, fires rockets near American forces, “paints” U.S. military aircraft as targets and issues propaganda showing American coffins. By working through its Iraqi proxies, who have launched rocket fire on U.S. bases, Tehran further demonstrates its ability to inflict severe damage on American forces without engaging them directly.
Despite Iran’s head start, however, its regime increasingly is susceptible to a counter-campaign, as part of a more comprehensive U.S. pressure strategy against Tehran.
Fundamentally, Iran’s leadership made its own bed here. Its endemic corruption, environmental mismanagement, foreign wars and sheer brutality have alienated many of its citizens, including those from traditional regime strongholds. Sanctions certainly have exacerbated the effects of Tehran’s poor governance. However, the regime can be its own worst enemy, too. There is a large-scale domestic backlash to its attempted coverup of the accidental Ukrainian airliner shoot-down in January. Massive protests also have flared in Iraq and Lebanon, driven in no small part by the repressive interference by Iran and its proxies in these countries.
The regime clearly is worried, as evidenced by its haste to effectively shut down Iran’s internet and readiness to suppress recent protests brutally and quickly.
Equally important, Iranian general Qassem Soleimani’s death upended Tehran’s assumptions about its ability to pressure the United States. U.S. threats of force now are more credible, meaning psychological operations can have a greater deterrent or compellent impact on the Iranian regime.
In this new, more accommodating environment, political warfare can pressure Iran where currently it feels most vulnerable — namely, its internal control and military power. Sanctions have weakened both, but not to the extent Tehran feels coerced to accede to U.S. demands to change its fundamental behaviors.
Similar to U.S. campaigns during the Cold War, information operations can add real fuel to internal dissent in Iran, including by broadcasting the supreme leader’s and security services’ gross corruption, systemic human rights abuses and costs in Iranian lives, treasure and reputation of the regime’s foreign adventurism. The United States also can target Iranian cyber and other communications efforts to control its own citizenry. Parallel measures apply to countering Iran’s proxies around the region.
American officials can use psychological operations to dissuade Iranian aggression against U.S. forces and interests — including by preparing and publicizing stronger U.S. force protection measures and contingency plans to neutralize key Iranian military assets. While some chance of escalation is always present here, the fact that Tehran knows America no longer is self-deterred helps minimize this risk. The United States also should increase direct military support for key regional allies on the front lines against Iran, including Israel and the Syrian Kurds.
The opportunity to implement such a strategy may be fleeting, especially if Iran can resume testing American resolve. By meaningfully expanding the pressure Tehran feels from inside and outside Iran, a political warfare campaign can have positive effects for the United States on Iranian decision-making.
Jonathan Ruhe and Ari Cicurel are director of foreign policy and senior policy analyst, respectively, at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy in Washington. Follow on Twitter @jinsadc.