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Iran Decrypted (Intro): A Critical Look at Recent Protests from a Global Perspective

Iran Decrypted (Intro): A Critical Look at Recent Protests from a Global Perspective

As modern conflict moves away from hard industrial war to soft information warfare, the recent political unrest in Iran must be analyzed from a new global perspective, one that recognizes the convergence of historical contexts, present-day challenges, and future impacts within an international framework.

Iran Decrypted (Intro): A Critical Look at Recent Protests from a Global Perspective

As modern conflict moves away from hard industrial war to soft information warfare, the recent political unrest in Iran must be analyzed from a new global perspective, one that recognizes the convergence of historical contexts, present-day challenges, and future impacts within an international framework.

Written by: Sara Salimi | Copy Editors: Zainabrights, Fatima Alhajri | Design: Fatima El-Zein | Consultants: Fiza Raza, Batool Subeiti

With over 300 million tweets, a striking number of new social media accounts created, and a rare level of online mobilization, the #MahsaAmini hashtag was used for much more than public protest [35,107]. Time Magazine recently praised Iranian women as heroes of the year, only to use colonialist language in describing their protests as “educated and desperate for normality” [119]. The past two months of nationwide protests in Iran have showcased what modern warfare on a global level looks like. As the human population moves from a world dominated by industrial war to one characterized by psychological information warfare, it is critical to examine political unrest from a new perspective, one that recognizes how “knowledge warriors” may be inflicting more harm and brewing more chaos than previously thought [34].

Contemporary warfare has started to move past advanced weaponry as the main tool to inflict damage, where the hard war has failed in securing the foreign policy objectives of aggressing states. The current globalized world is a fertile ground for a different type of political conflict, where information permeates all aspects of war. According to information war analysts, this type of warfare incorporates all sorts of new technologies, including digital soldiers, drones, computer-driven weapons, bots, fake news articles, viruses, and hacked Twitter feeds to influence public opinion [34]. In the case of Mahsa Amini protests in Iran, a population’s voices and grievances were strategically weaponized in a much larger global imperialist movement.

The first few days of Mahsa Amini protests in Iran demonstrate the extent to which information was weaponized at a time of confusion and political unrest. Within just one or two days, #MahsaAmini tweets were in the millions, while the number of accounts that tweeted about the topic itself did not exceed 450,000. Accounts that appeared to be solely promotional were mostly new ones that had no previous activity on Twitter and seemed to have been made specifically to spread trending hashtags [53].

Floods of false information and unverified news circulated on social media platforms, including outdated photos and videos from other countries that were falsely attributed to Iran. Systematic campaigns took full advantage of fake accounts and intricate webs of bots to replicate and amplify these types of misinformation [53]. Even further, the narrative on Mahsa Amini suspiciously shifted in language and tone since the onset of protests, when tweets from influencers, politicians, and other figures like Masih Alinejad started off with claims that “Mahsa died in a coma,” to “she was beaten up by police,” to “she was murdered by the Islamic Republic” [108]. Several mainstream media outlets slowly backed out of publishing clickbait content on the issue as it became clear that there was a heavy misinformation campaign at play.

Social media soon became weaponized for other agendas as well, including calls for regime change, which the West has been conspiring to achieve since the advent of the Islamic Revolution, with conspiracies of all forms fomented in this pursuit.

This includes the eight-year war, assassinations within Iran against scholars and scientists, economic sanctions, secondary sanctions and the creation of outlets for propaganda purposes [100, 110, 111]. Perhaps the most outspoken figure in pushing forth an anti-regime narrative against Iran is John Bolton, the former US national security advisor. Over the past decade, he has endorsed and actively supported the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MEK), and its leader Maryam Rajavi, in efforts to overthrow the Iranian government. Once labeled as a terrorist organization by the US State Department, the MEK has historically carried out terrorist acts in Iran and even collaborated with Saddam Hussein during the eight-year war against Iran, establishing its base in Iraq and killing Iranians in the magnitude of tens of thousands [36].

In gaining support for its anti-Iran agenda, however, the MEK found strong support and influence in Capitol Hill. Lawmakers and policy architects have promoted MEK’s interests in Washington, but its greatest supporters, politicians such as John Bolton and Rudy Guiliani, are tasked with making foreign policy changes in the White House [37]. Political unrest in Iran, which the West helps in turning violent through enabling their undercover collaborator networks, are prime time to push for those changes. Having recognized that their imperialist pleas have been ineffective thus far due to the resolve of the Iranian nation in the face of these conspiracies, Western stakeholders have largely turned to information warfare to push forward their agendas of wreaking instability and stoking divisions in the nation [38].

From social media campaigns that advance the interest of the US and its allies against West Asian nations to the heavy use of bots and fake accounts to spread misinformation, the real-life consequences of Western propaganda and infiltration in Iranian affairs has proven to be much more disastrous than before [38]. Investigations have shown that an interconnected web of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and five other social media platforms used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in Western and Central Asia [39]

The weaponization of social media platforms has effectively turned people’s voices and hashtags into weapons in what many call “a new cold war” [38]. Studies by the Stanford Internet Observatory and Graphika, an intelligence-linked US government contractor, reveal that modern influence operations (IO) have overwhelmingly focused on activity linked to Western adversaries in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, and have used biased language, misinformation, and imperialist propaganda networks to achieve their desired impact [38].

Thus, when analyzing the various dimensions of political unrest in Iran and in West Asia, a critical perspective is a necessary one that provides nuance and depth to an issue that cannot be discussed in isolation.

The prominence of the psychological information war today is proof that all efforts to cause ‘regime change’ have failed due to Iran’s increasing influence and strength in the region. Therefore, it can be argued that the Western objective of inciting unrest today is to apply pressure on Iran to achieve its political goals at the negotiating table, having resorted to this after recognizing the undeniable shift in balance of powers to Iran.

If Western support for Mahsa Amini protests were really about democracy and Iranians’ right to decide, government overthrow – whether a secular democracy or an Islamic Republic – would not be part of the agenda. After all, Iran did have a secular, democratic government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh between 1951 and 1953, but he was removed from power in a coup organized and funded by the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the MI6 [40].

The piece you just read is a part of a larger report on Iran. Each day we will delve into a different aspect. Part two, "Iran Decrypted: Propaganda and the Labeling of Iranian Voices" comes out on Wednesday, Dec 24th, 2022.

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