In the hands of repressive and authoritarian regimes from Hitler’s Germany to the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran, propaganda is a powerful tool to shape the views of the populace and achieve the goals of the state. As part of The Sardari Project, Iran’s ongoing collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, propaganda expert Renee Hobbs and our correspondent Arash Azizi consider the many and dangerous forms propaganda has taken over the course of the last century.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was born in 1979 following a mass uprising that ended with the overthrow and exile of Iran’s previous modernizing and authoritarian monarch, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. The hardline Islamist regime that was established in the Shah’s stead went on to enforce a strict version of Islamic law that penetrated every aspect of its citizens’ public and private lives.
Although Iran has some tokenistic “democratic” institutions, like a parliament with representatives voted in by the people in elections, it operates in practice like a dictatorship. Shia Muslim clerics, especially Iran’s unelected Supreme Leader and his closest associates, can overrule Iran’s legislature and judicial system according to their personal interpretation of Islamic law. Their will is enforced by powerful paramilitary organizations and a nexus of hidden intelligence services who together seek to control the population and keep the values of the Islamic Revolution intact.
Historical factors have shaped how contemporary propaganda developed in the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic built up its propaganda structures over time and has continued to operate them for the past 41 years. From traditions established during the Cold War, art and music became important forms of propaganda. The rise of pan-Islamism and the digital revolution have also shaped the government’s use of censorship and propaganda.
How Propaganda Maintains Authoritarian Rule
Propaganda in Iran is essential to maintaining authoritarian rule. In authoritarian countries, centralized state control of culture is a central function of government. The Iranian state has always relied on propaganda to continuously re-assert its claim to power. Propaganda in Iran can be identified in just the same way as anywhere else in the world: by how it appeals to people’s strongest values and traditions, activating emotion, over-simplifying concepts and ideas, suppressing dissenting voices, and attacking perceived enemies.
Iran’s ruling clique maintains its grip on power by combining propaganda with the power of military force. This type of propaganda always prioritizes regime security over national security and economic prosperity. That means that preservation of the regime is considered more important than the safety, happiness or betterment of its people.
What makes Iran’s propaganda authoritarian? Firstly, as well as disseminating information, the government uses all the resources at its disposal to limit the free flow of uncontrolled information or ideas that might undermine its own message. When a government or corporations in a democratic country like the United States engage in propaganda tactics, they compete with rival campaigns from many sides, which are freely available to the people. But in Iran, like in other authoritarian or totalitarian states such as China or and North Korea, one point of view is expressed and repeated over and over by many different sources controlled by the state. Alternative views are extremely limited or may not be permitted at all.
In the Islamic Republic, the state either controls or heavily restricts all forms of mass media including newspapers, TV and radio. Access to the internet is restricted and censored. Every line of every book is reviewed before publication by the Culture Ministry. Information favorable to the regime is plentiful but ordinary people cannot easily access a broad range of ideas.
Military force was used to uphold censorship after widespread coverage of student protests in Tehran in 1999. A series of unprecedented crackdowns on press freedom led to the arrests of independent journalists and photographers. Strict press laws led to the ban of more than 100 newspapers over the next four years. Since then, there have been other crackdowns designed to punish journalists and remind them of the limitations on public discourse. For example, in 2009, dozens of journalists were imprisoned and tortured for covering the pro-democracy Green Movement protests after the contested re-election of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such displays of power send a clear message to Iran’s citizens: independent thinking is dangerous because critical discourse will not be tolerated.
Today Iran ranks at 173 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s World Press Freedom Index. Journalists and editors have been kidnapped, detained in appalling conditions, tortured and even sentenced to death for the most minor of perceived transgressions, and hundreds of them are currently languishing behind bars. This means that journalists cannot play a role in countering the pervasive propaganda disseminated by government officials.
Art and Music as Propaganda
Propaganda engages people’s emotions for strategic political purposes. During the 1980s, despite a brutal war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988, the government in Tehran consolidated its power by mobilizing large numbers of people through nationalist, revolutionary and Islamist propaganda.
While the country’s longstanding rich and multi-faceted cultural and literary traditions were harshly suppressed, a new generation of pro-regime artists and intellectuals were trained and deployed in service of the regime. For example, in the early years after the Islamic Republic was established, huge public murals and socialist-realist artwork emerged on walls across Iran as a form of visual propaganda. These often depicted the “fathers” of the Islamic Revolution such as Ayatollah Khomenei and army generals alongside religious symbols and revolutionary slogans.
Muralists of the Iran-Iraq war then deployed similar imagery and vast portraits of “martyred” soldiers to compel hundreds of thousands of young Iranian men to enlist and fight Iraqi forces on the frontlines. Public murals in Iran were designed to excite emotion and present an oversimplified – and indeed outright misleading – depiction of the brutal realities of war. They also used Islamic iconography and promises of an afterlife in heaven to encourage young Muslims to join up. So too did the proliferation of Soviet-style revolutionary hymns that came to prominence during the Islamic Revolution and took on a new role during the Iran-Iraq war.
Music as a propaganda tool has a complex history in Iran. Because of his belief in the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, Ayatollah Khomeini was openly disdainful of music. But his acolytes convinced him to permit “revolutionary music” as a form of propaganda. In fact, pro-Islamic Republic songs have played in the corridors of power throughout its existence to inspire patriotic and religious fervor. The popular revolutionary hymn “Imam Khomeini”, for example, contains the following lyrics:
O Mujahid [warrior], the manifestation of honor;
O past, from the soul to the destination;
Because you are determined to line up your enemies;
Leave your head, leave your body, leave your life!
In the 1980s, many artists and entertainers were forced to leave Iran and many moved to Los Angeles to continue their careers. In their stead, state-sanctioned artists such as Qolam Koveytipoor and Sadeq Ahangaran performed songs encouraging young Iranian men to fight and die for their country. Koveytipoor, with his melodic Change Del, and Ahangaran, with his rousing Army of the Hidden Imam, were the leading lights in a new wave of panegyrists who used the traditional themes of Shia religious mourning songs to invent new, politicized performances. This hybrid genre continues to be popular in stirring up religious feeling for sectarian and political ends.
Iranian Propaganda in the Information Age
In school textbooks and in Iranian public discourse, digital media and the internet are sometimes portrayed as tools of “soft war” used by enemies to assault Iranian culture, blighting “ethical values and cultural norms” as the regime sees them. But the Islamic Republic also realizes that computer technologies are essential to modernizing the economy and manufacturing consent.
Government officials in Iran have long limited access to the internet and blocked social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook. As more and more Iranians have smartphones, censorship has become a key strategy used to stop Iranians from being exposed to ideas that run counter to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, and potentially from organized activism and dissent. Since 2010, the country has been developing its own “National Information Network”: an intranet that would replace the internet in Iran, shutting citizens off from all content the regime considers to be “counter-revolutionary”, “subversive”, “anti-government”, “violating national security” or “insulting the sacred”.
To get around the firewall, many Iranians use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access information and entertainment, even though they are illegal. A new generation of tech-savvy Iranians are also using more sophisticated anti-censorship technology. One of the most popular tools, a service called Psiphon, was used by an average of 10.9 million Iranians during internet shutdowns last November as the state tried to restore order in the face of widespread anti-government protests. Psiphon is used by around 650,000 Iranians a day to surf the web anonymously and contact each other. In response, the Islamic Republic has proposed stronger rules for censorship that would place social media under military control.
The Iranian government has also begun honing its own digital channels of cyber-indoctrination and disinformation. Of the $1.8 billion that Iran spent on propaganda in 2015, just 13 percent was allotted to the Culture Ministry’s budget. The other 87 percent was handed over to the many powerful organizations that make up the Islamic Republic’s “shadow state” for their own publicity. This included the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary force that controls the Basij along with at least 30 percent of Iran’s economy. The IRGC runs its own propaganda websites as well as a plethora of slick, meme-heavy social media channels that target young Iranians with pro-regime messages.
Influencing domestic opinion is not the only goal of Tehran’s digital propaganda drives. The regime also attempts to influence opinions of Iran – and of its perceived “enemies” such as Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia – among foreign audiences across the globe. To this end, it has launched state-controlled media outlets in dozens of languages: most notably the English, Spanish and Arabic satellite channel programs Press TV, Hispan TV and Al Alam, which generally reproduce verbatim the pro-Iranian, anti-Western content of Iran’s domestic news websites, without counter-balancing arguments or qualifying information.
But the Iranian state also controls many discrete, smaller outlets in other languages, both on isolated webpages and in covert Facebook and Twitter feeds. Some of these are explicit disinformation tools with no pretense at professional reporting. Tens of websites belonging to an online network known as the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), for example, which were recently seized by the FBI, amplified conspiracy theories that emanated from Iranian state media by publishing memes and spurious news articles in English, Arabic and Persian, doctored to look like original content. For example, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was described in a post on a dummy Facebook “news” page as having “died of coronavirus”: a story that perpetuated the “coronavirus-as-biological-weapon” myth (the Saudi King is, in reality, very much alive). When falsehoods are presented in formats disguised as credible news, they have enormous potential to sway public opinion.
Despite all the noise generated by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s propaganda projects, it is hard to assess how far any of them are influencing public opinion in 2020. Since the blood-soaked 1980s, revolutionary zeal and support for the regime among the Iranian public seems to have dwindled. There have been many waves of anti-government protests in Iran, most notably in the 2009 Green Movement but also last November, when a hike in fuel prices led to hundreds of thousands taking to the streets calling for the ousting of the Islamic regime.
Today, more than 130,000 Iranian students are enrolled in foreign universities, where a similar number of scholars of Iranian descent work and teach. Despite the regime’s decades-long appeals to nationalism and unity under the Iranian flag, in 2006 the International Monetary Fund reported that Iran ranked the highest in “brain drain” of all developed countries with 150,000 to 180,000 specialists emigrating a year: equivalent to an annual capital loss of $50 billion.
Political repression, corruption, poor governance, and a bleak economic outlook have led many to believe that the regime is unable to meet Iranians’ most basic economic and social needs. In time the Islamic Republic may well find that even when propaganda is combined with military and legal power, it can be difficult to convince its citizens that its principles and approach are worth preserving.