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Iran’s “Cognitive War” Is More Dangerous than Missiles and Killer Drones

 
Filed under: Iran, Operation Swords of Iron
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Iran’s “Cognitive War” Is More Dangerous than Missiles and Killer Drones
A pro-Khamenei publication celebrates a campus demonstration, “a flame in the heart of darkness.” (Khat-e-Hizbullah)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 24, No. 10

  • Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei understands that while Iran cannot defeat the U.S. militarily, it can strive to erode its foundations through propaganda. The front page of the May 2, 2024, issue of the weekly Khat-e-Hizbullah,the mouthpiece of Khamenei’s office, featured a photo from the American campus protests with the heading: “A Flame in the Heart of Darkness: Uprising of American Students against the Genocide of the People of Gaza.”
  • Khamenei himself directs the propaganda activity aimed at linking the American students’ support for Gaza with the destruction of the U.S. itself, using these students. Khamenei sees his role as a cognitive guide, directing the use of psychological tools and influencers. He employs the narrative of the “Palestinian struggle” to construct new narratives portraying Israel as the occupier, the racist, and the agent of genocide.
  • In their naive blindness, the demonstrators believe in the messages full-heartedly but are unaware of the narratives invented by the Ayatollah regime. Part of this cognitive project is to turn Americans against the U.S. itself, which is portrayed as supporting the racist and genocidal Israel as described in the Iranian propaganda.
  • Khamenei asserts that the war is now a cognitivewar. He said, “The press has more potent influence than a missile, a drone, a warplane, and weapons in general. The media influences the mind and hearts, and he who controls the media succeeds in achieving his goals.”
  • On Oct. 17, 2023, ten days after Hamas’ onslaught (and before Israeli ground forces entered Gaza), he chose to call the war in Gaza a “genocide,” claiming that the Israelis were deliberately attacking residential areas. He called to put them on trial. He also shares his hope that “the world population will gain a deep understanding of Islam and its superiority to the West.”
  • Professor Fuad Yazdi of Tehran University, one of the prominent spokespersons of the Iranian regime, claimed on April 26, 2024, that the student protesters at U.S. universities “will take to the streets to support Iran.” In his view, Iran can replicate its achievements in Lebanon in the U.S., where the “Hizbullah” groups are “much larger” than in Lebanon. Yazdi’s words reflect the fact that the U.S. is the main target. He calls it the “Great Satan” and the “cardinal enemy of Iran” and says the recent events there “give us hope.”

The front page of the May 02, 2024, issue of the weekly Khat-e-Hizbullah, the mouthpiece of Khamenei’s office, featured a photo from the American campus protests with the heading: “A Flame in the Heart of Darkness: Uprising of American Students against the Genocide of the People of Gaza.”1

An Iranian poster on the streets of Tehran
An Iranian poster on the streets of Tehran, “We Are the Superpower,” 2020. Khamenei often displays messages on Tehran’s large Vali Asr “revolving” billboard.

Khamenei himself directs the propaganda activity. It aims to link the American students’ support for Gaza with the destruction of the United States itself using these students. This, in turn, reflects Ali Khamenei’s worldview, which is a copy-paste of Goebbels’s worldview and Soviet policy regarding the power of propaganda, media, and cognitive engineering. As Khamenei sees it, while Iran indeed cannot defeat the United States militarily, it can strive to erode its foundations through propaganda.

Khamenei sees his role as a cognitive guide, directing the use of psychological tools and influencers. Beyond military purposes, he makes use of the Palestinian proxies as an expendable terror force against Israel. He employs the narrative of the “Palestinian struggle” to construct new narratives portraying Israel as the occupier, the racist, and the agent of genocide.

This cognitive activity is preplanned and intended to generate support for the Palestinian cause among Americans at large and others who do not understand or have a personal connection to the issue. In their naïve blindness, the demonstrators believe in the messages full-heartedly but are unaware of the narratives invented by the Ayatollah regime. The second part of this cognitive project is to turn Americans at large against the United States itself, which is portrayed as supporting the racist and genocidal Israel described in the Iranian propaganda narratives.

Khamenei: A Phased Cognitive Struggle

The Media and the Influencers

Khamenei asserts that global conflicts are won via the media. When defeating the enemy, he said, “The press has more potent influence than a missile, a drone, a warplane, and weapons in general.” In his view, war is now a cognitive war. “The media influences the mind and hearts, and he who controls the media succeeds in achieving his goals whatever they are.”2

Khamenei further explains the use of influencers, such as intellectuals, politicians, and journalists, to mobilize the public. For example, if the task is to publicly pressure governments to cease supporting Israel, it will be accomplished by mobilizing such influencers3 to activate the public in that direction.

Building Narratives

Even though the elderly Khamenei now speaks slowly and heavily because of his age, undoubtedly, his words are carefully planned to produce propaganda narratives that will take root in the mind. For years, he has called Israel the “occupying regime,” a label that is applied to Israel in the Iranian media and throughout the course of the Iron Swords of War.4

Khamenei manipulates the term “racism” to create a context for harming innocent people. As he put it, “The Zionist regime is an epitome of racism,” and hence, Israel “murders thousands of children without pangs of conscience.” He leaves the United States and Europe no choice in the matter, saying their populations must decide what to do in light of this situation. “They must show that they do not support racism.”5

Khamenei, for his part, did so on October 17, 2023. Ten days after Hamas’s onslaught, he chose to call the war in Gaza a “genocide,” claiming that the Israelis were deliberately attacking residential areas. He called to put them on trial (perhaps his call was the origin of the Iranian–South African lawsuit) and already charged the U.S. administration with responsibility.6

Khamenei builds the cognitive narrative of the “social and moral jihad” with support for Palestine linked to opposition to the United States. The United States, in his view, has come to be hated, as the demonstrators for Palestine in the streets of London, Paris, other European countries, and the United States express their revulsion of America. Khamenei avers that “whoever chooses to support Palestine through the social jihad, the Islamic jihad, or the jihad stemming from personal conscience, the Islamic Republic will back them until the goal of Israel’s destruction is achieved.”7

A pro-Khamenei publication celebrates a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Washington
A pro-Khamenei publication celebrates a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Washington. (Khat-e-Hizbullah)

Khamenei distinguishes between support for Hamas and support for terror.”8

Support for “Palestine” and for Islam, according to the Supreme Leader, indicates faith in the Palestinian response to Israeli aggression (and not that Hamas murdered, raped, and burned innocent people in the name of Islam). Khamenei also claims that many young people in the West and the United States have begun delving into the Koran, and he hopes “the world population will gain a deep understanding of Islam and its superiority to the West.”9 The leaders of the Islamic countries that maintain ties with Israel, he says, are acting against the Koran.10

Propaganda and Its Value

Khamenei stresses the importance of ongoing propaganda in mobilizing worldwide public support for Gaza.11 “The issue of Gaza must not be allowed to fall from the top rung of world public opinion; this issue is critical”12 and in his view, decisive.

In a conversation with Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, Khamenei praised the propaganda and media activity of the Palestinian resistance and claimed “it was superior to the Israeli media efforts. He emphasized the importance of maintaining this superiority.”13

Universities Oppose the United States, Particularly in the United States Itself

On October 23, 2024, Khamenei pointed to the power of the universities and asserted that “all the universities and religious centers in the world must stand beside Gaza in the war.”14 A few weeks later, he underlined the need to make the most of the global trend of people taking to the streets and denouncing Israel and the United States.15 ,16 That same week, on November 3, an issue of Khat-e-Hizbullah carried the headline “Worldwide Mobilization to Call for Death to America.”17

Elsewhere, Khamenei said that universities, beyond their obligation to produce educated people and knowledge, must also direct their graduates’ knowledge. He warns that the world’s universities are not doing so, and currently, the knowledge of educated people is controlled by Israel and the United States.18

Khamenei noted the increase in the number of U.S. universities where protests occur. He explained this indicates that Gaza is the top issue on the public agenda and that it is crucial to sustain this cognitive effect. To bolster his cognitive message, Khamenei distorts the facts and claims that U.S. students do not engage in violence or vandalism but only express themselves verbally. At the same time, the violent treatment toward the demonstrators justifies Iran’s stance toward the United States and its calls for “Death to America.”19

Professor Fuad Yazdi of Tehran University, one of the prominent spokespersons of the Iranian regime, addressed the protests at the U.S. universities on April 26, 2024. First, he claimed that “were it not for the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian cause would have been buried long ago” instead of being the focus of the protests. The protests, he said, will, in the first stage, reduce U.S. support for Israel, while in the second stage, as U.S.–Iranian tensions grow, these students, whom Yazdi defines as affiliated with the Islamic Republic, “will take to the streets to support Iran.” In his view, Iran can replicate its achievements in Lebanon in the United States, where the “Hizbullah” groups are “much larger” than in Lebanon.

Yazdi’s words reflect the fact that the United States is the main target. He calls it the “Great Satan” and the “cardinal enemy of Iran” and says the recent events there “give us hope.”20

If It Looks like a Duck—and Quacks like a Duck

The Iranians regard the Biden administration as a weak regime. They have progressed in their nuclear program despite the purported sanctions. They attacked Israel directly on April 14, 2024, in an unprecedented and unconcealed fashion, with missiles and drones, knowing the United States would not retaliate together with Israel and would restrain the Israeli counterattack. The Iranian reports about Turkey relaying messages between the United States and Iran21 on coordinating the attack on Israel and reining in the response only underline the administration’s weakness in their eyes. They are closely observing U.S. policy toward Israel on the Rafah issue and believe that the United States will not allow the elimination of their proxy, Hamas, which also carries implications about Israel’s campaign against Hizbullah and the stability of the Iranian proxies in the Middle East.

Iranian Subversive Activity in the United States

On the American front, information indicates subversive Iranian activity there. Two such pieces of information seem to imply the building of an infrastructure and the activity of senior figures:

  1. On May 6, 2017, Hooshang Amirahmadi, a pro-regime intellectual who lives in the United States,22 interviewed Iranian historian Hossein Dabashi, who stated that former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif had established the National Iranian American Council23 as a lobby for the regime and had appointed Trita Parsi as its head. According to Amirahmadi, Zarif stressed that the Iranians in the United States must be mobilized to promote the Islamic Republic’s interests.24

  2. On June 29, 2023, reports in the United States said that Robert Malley, the former special envoy for Iranian affairs, had been put on unpaid leave. Subsequently, it was reported that he had been suspended because of security lapses and that his security clearance, which had granted him access to secret documents, had been revoked. A resulting spate of theories turned mainly on the assumption that Malley had transferred classified documents to his personal email account.25

    While no indictment has been filed against Malley, recently, Republican lawmakers told Secretary of State Anthony Blinken they had disturbing allegations against Malley and asked that they be confirmed.26

    Unmistakably, the Iranian regime sees the American regime’s weakness as a golden opportunity. In light of the merging of the “Palestinian struggle” with the progressive left and other organizations in the campus protests, alongside the apparent subversive effort to build an infrastructure in the United States, it is crucial to see the magnitude of Iran’s intelligence, infrastructure, and financial capabilities. Iran makes use of the Palestinian flag (not that it interests them) and the mounting antisemitism to achieve its ends in the cognitive struggle against the Great Satan, as it works to turn the demonstrations, the demonstrators, and the narratives against the U.S. government.

    This is how Khamenei utilizes the noisy minority even if the majority does not share their opinion (as in the case of the latest Eurovision Song Contest, in which the official judges gave zero points to the Israeli contestant while their own population gave her the maximum number of votes).

    Moreover, in his speeches, Khamenei usually hints at what is forthcoming. For example, his threats to cut off Israel from vital arteries27 were followed by the Houthi attacks on maritime shipping, and his threats against Muslim countries to temporarily sever ties with Israel28 were followed by Erdogan’s announcement on suspending trade with Israel. His threats to turn the student protests against the United States itself must be taken seriously.

* * *

Notes

* The author would like to thank Avraham M. of the Iranian Desk for his assistance in preparing this document.

  1. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/others-report?id=56219↩︎

  2. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/17835↩︎

  3. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/16281↩︎

  4. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=54447↩︎

  5. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/14785↩︎

  6. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=54139↩︎

  7. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=55731↩︎

  8. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=56147↩︎

  9. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=55539↩︎

  10. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=55320↩︎

  11. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/17863↩︎

  12. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=55950↩︎

  13. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/17863↩︎

  14. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/14278↩︎

  15. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/14500↩︎

  16. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/14545↩︎

  17. https://t.me/khamenei_irNews/14563↩︎

  18. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=56000↩︎

  19. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=56208#_ftnref5↩︎

  20. https://www.memri.org/tv/tehran-univeristy-prof-foad-izadi-american-campuses-support-iran-hizbullah↩︎

  21. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iranian-notice-attack-may-have-dampened-escalation-risks-2024-04-14/# :~.↩︎

  22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hooshang_Amirahmadi↩︎

  23. https://www.niacouncil.org/mission-and-vision/↩︎

  24. Among dozens of interviews that Dabashi held with numerous Iranian figures, which can be seen on the homepage of the Iranian site ARARAT (a kind of alternative to YouTube), only this interview was deleted. The full interview is available at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/7/71/Kheshte_Kham_-_E23_-_Amirahmadi.webm/Kheshte_Kham_-_E23_-_Amirahmadi.webm.720p.vp9.webm

    “The founder of NIAC, Trita Parsi, and several other people worked for me. I brought him from Sweden. He didn’t have a visa, and I arranged a visa for him, and he worked for me for a year and a half. Then he said he wanted to work on his PhD/doctorate, and I let him go. Then, he founded NIAC…NIAC entered the issue of Iran-U.S. relations starting from the Zarif era. Zarif founded NAIC (during the period when he was Iran’s representative at the UN) (01:27:01).” Zarif believed that the Iranians in the U.S. should be organized and used for the benefit of the Islamic Republic.” (01:27:12)↩︎

  25. https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/congress-launches-probe-into-scandal-plagued-biden-iran-envoy/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Malley↩︎

  26. https://twitter.com/GLNoronha/status/1787953401944240241↩︎

  27. https://t.me/BisimchiMedia/113792↩︎

  28. https://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=54696↩︎