In the war over narratives, Iran takes the upper hand

In the war over narratives, Iran takes the upper hand
Comment: Compared to the US' clunky and inconsistent rhetoric, Iran is playing a skilful hand, writes Tanya Goudsouzian.
6 min read
26 Jun, 2019
The US imposed new 'hard-hitting' sanctions on Iran earlier this week [Getty]
During an informal discussion with a former ambassador to NATO, I asked whether he believed European countries were likely to support a US war against Iran. 

The veteran diplomat raised an eyebrow and said: "We were dragged into a war in 2003, based on spurious evidence and against our better judgment. We won't make that same mistake again."

For the US, much of the challenge comes from its inability to "sell" armed conflict in the Middle East as a practical means to advance its interests.

That American attempts to paint Iran as a threat to world peace were described as "spurious" by a widely respected veteran European diplomat says much about America's limited success in the battle over narratives. 

As I have argued recently, the US not only suffers from being perceived as a bully (and its adversaries as underdogs), its clunky, robotic and sometimes inconsistent messaging contrasts sharply with the carefully crafted narrative of the Iranians.

Despite this record, the conflict continues to escalate. Growing US-Iran tensions reached a crescendo on 21 June when the Iranians shot down an advanced US drone. Tehran claimed the drone had entered Iranian airspace; the US insisted the drone was over international waters.

After a series of alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers, proxy attacks around the region, threats, accusations, counter-accusations and contested videos purporting to show "malign" actions, the international community has grown tired of the rhetorical tit-for-tat.

For the US, much of the challenge comes from its inability to 'sell' armed conflict in the Middle East as a practical means to advance its interests

Still, sentiment appears to favour Tehran with European countries calling for "maximum restraint" as top US officials keep banging the drums of war. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may have stated "President Trump does not want war", but making the announcement from a podium at the military headquarters of CENTCOM was hardly reassuring. Many observers have interpreted the American approach as provoking war.

At a time when heads of state and policymakers around the world regularly express their views - and intentions - on social media, US President Donald Trump's tweets have often been the subject of ridicule.

By contrast, Zarif schmoozes the media, notes one Politico opinion piece. Unlike clumsy US attempts to strategically communicate messages, "If the media is a game, Zarif play(s) it superbly."

On 26 June, Trump tweeted that Iran would be "met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration."

On the same day, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted: "The Iranian nation has displayed glory, sovereignty, & dignity in the true sense of the word for the past 40 years; that they say Iran can't be defeated is due to this 40-year movement, not because of events in the past 2,3 or 6 months."

Domestically speaking, dignity is a currency the Iranian authorities have been able to manipulate with much success, to win the support of a population who feel stripped of their dignity, living under grueling sanctions for 40 years.

Even American commentators now acknowledge that the "maximum pressure" strategy is no longer working - some would go so far as to say, it is backfiring.

"Tehran's tenuous investment in the global political and economic order, rather than its military capacity, is the major factor preventing the situation from deteriorating further. That makes Washington's attempts to erode Iran's political and economic standing a high-risk game," argues one opinion writer in Bloomberg.

Iran's rhetoric, American credibility

Iran's rhetoric has come a long way since the days of solely chanting "America is the Great Satan / Death to America". Their current language of "we will stand up to the Americans and defeat them" resonates in the Middle East at a time when American credibility has nosedived as a result of a series of diplomatic and policy blunders.

The Iranian charm offensive launched when Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013 is bearing fruit at last. In Iran, the president has been hailed as a "moderate", tweets "like a pundit" and he even writes op-eds for mainstream US publications calling for "constructive engagement". 

America's 'sabre rattling' rhetoric has played straight into the hands of the Iranian government

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, educated in the US, is described variously as "smooth", "polished" and "jovial".

Such words are hard to find for the US leadership. Little question on which country is winning the diplomatic battle; while there is near-universal condemnation of the US for unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA last year, Iran and its leaders have been masterful in another round of its diplomatic charm offensive.

But even Iran sometimes lets its guard down and falls prey to back-and-forth sarcastic comments.

After the new sanctions were announced, the normally stone-faced President Rouhani let loose with a barrage of insults, not only pronouncing the end of a diplomatic path, but deriding the White House as being "afflicted by mental retardation" - a term so offensive it is banned from US civil discourse.

Tehran carefully calibrates its use of information as a tool of war, and this has proven to be highly effective. A recent illustration is a contested video purporting to show Iranian saboteurs removing evidence from one of two oil tankers attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

The Americans tout this as damning evidence of Iranian culpability, while Iranians dismiss it as disinformation at best, or at worst a modern-day Gulf of Tonkin incident, providing justification for an American response. 

Indeed, in Iran and elsewhere, America's "sabre rattling" rhetoric has played straight into the hands of the Iranian government which, in contrast to US fire and fury, casts itself as a measured voice of reason in the face of US bellicosity.

What the US has painted as provocative activities by Iran - drone, rocket and undersea attacks - have been described as 'baiting' by the Iranians, who imply these are false flag operations intended to goad them - or their proxy groups - into retaliatory action. 

As a recent report by the DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) puts it:

"While there has been considerable focus in the United States on Iran's military capabilities and activities, there has been far less attention devoted to Iran's 'soft power' and its efforts to expand influence."

It cites a former Iranian intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi as saying: "We do not have a physical war with the enemy, but we are engaged in heavy information warfare with the enemy." In contrast, the report concedes that US efforts to ideologically compete with Iran "have been ad hoc and poorly funded".

Losses on the ground, wins online

Should the two countries engage in armed conflict, the effects in the region will be devastating. There would likely be significant damage to Iranian military capabilities, infrastructure and its dormant nuclear facilities.

By most physical measures, the Iranians would incur significant loss and, likely, high casualties. The US, by contrast, may suffer losses but they would be a small fraction by comparison.

Yet, the Iranians would win the battle of the narrative. It would demonstrate its willingness to wage "Maximum Resistance" against the US "Maximum Pressure" campaign.

Like David, it will have stood up to Goliath (even if Goliath still stands). Unlikely to see its regime affected, Iran would turn the physical defeat into a rhetorical victory, and the airwaves, networks, social media, press and commentary would generally side with the Iranians and against the US.

And  perhaps achieving what it has set out to do all along, this would reverse the US campaign against Iran, develop even more animosity against Trump domestically and internationally, and do its best to see a Democrat in the White House in 2020.

As the Iranians have learned over the years, words matter.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for over 15 years. She is former Opinion editor of Al Jazeera English Online. 

Follow her on Twitter: 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.