Iran is stepping up its media and influence efforts across the broader Middle East in worrisome ways, the top U.S. commander in the region said.
“One of the key things that we see here is their [Iran’s] use of cyber capabilities to manipulate the information environment,” Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, D.C.“This is where you see the most significant influence of these actors in this particular space. Their ability to use cyberspace to manipulate information, propagate a message is a key aspect of what see.”
Votel said, “Iran is clearly a threat to the long-term stability in this region. They work almost entirely in the gray zone,” a reference to not-quite-warfare waged through non-uniformed fighters and aggressive propaganda.
U.S. troops got a taste of Iran’s media-manipulation efforts in Iraq in 2015, said a senior U.S. military official with extensive command experience in Iraq.
“We end up being the bête noir, the boogeyman in almost every story. The Iranian-owned or -sponsored media would have everybody believe that the United States of America created ISIS, although we are over there fighting them,” the senior official said. “While the Iranians and Shia think we are pro-Sunni, the Sunnis will think we are pro-Iranian because of the nuclear agreement and support for the Iraqi government.”
Iran had several ways to undermine the perceived effectiveness of U.S. efforts, he said. “One thing they would typically do, I was convinced of this, is go to an Iraqi commander we were working with and put a lot of pressure on that guy to slow down his operations, drag his feet, so to speak, to allow more of an opportunity for the [Iranian militia-dominated forces] to play a larger role and gain more cred. It would be very frustrating to us. We are almost positive that, a lot of time when these commanders got a case of the ‘slows’ as, as Lincoln would say about [General George B.] McClellan, we could trace that back to Iranian pressure.”
Votel said such influence efforts are now spreading across the region. “Iran benefits from instability throughout the Middle East and is consistently working to fuel tension between us and our partners. The recent disagreement between Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt with Qatar is a glaring example of where they are attempting to do this,” he said, pointing out that Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base is a major staging ground for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria.
Iran has had a large media presence in Iraq ever since the U.S. went to war against the regime of Saddam Hussein, said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who also spent time as a counselor to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. “When I was in Iraq, between 2003 and 2010, I saw many Iraq officials who kept Iranian TV on. They weren’t just Shia, they were Kurds and even Sunnis who kept Iranian media on throughout the day in case there was a big announcement out of Tehran. That influence was always there.”
Ford said the U.S. can still fight Iranian-sponsored narratives, so long as it continues to engage the Middle East in ways beyond simply projecting military power. “I don’t think Iranian media will enjoy a credibility boost across the broader Middle East after the wars in Syria and Iraq, when the fighting eases. My sense is that Iran’s intervention on behalf of Bashar al Assad has not won it hearts and minds in the broader Arab world. I do sense there is suspicion about what Iran is doing.”