Iran's Coronavirus Communications Create a Window of Opportunity for America
Tehran’s leaders are pushing conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Now is Washington's time to strike.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s disinformation about the coronavirus creates an opening for the United States and its partners to pressure the regime by revealing its abuses. “Lying is a delightful thing,” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment, “for it leads to the truth—what is offensive is that they lie and worship their own lying.” Over 150 years after Dostoevsky penned those words, Iranian falsehoods about the novel coronavirus spread like wildfire.
Iran’s leadership has a long history of destructive behavior and disinformation operations to cover it up. Some of its most recent frauds include: lying about not massacring protestors, denying it downed a Ukrainian passenger plane, and spreading the conspiracy theory that America and Israel support the Islamic State.
Now, Iranian leaders continue to “worship their own lying,” denying their failed response to the virus and floating conspiracy theories. The truth: Tehran bungled its pandemic response from the start.
Iran ordered air travel with China halted on January 31, but Iranian leadership allowed Mahan Air flights until February 23. Meanwhile, Iran did not acknowledge the virus’s presence in the country before it confirmed its first coronavirus deaths on February 19.
Currently, the nation and its people are one of the hardest impacted by the novel coronavirus. Indeed, concern about the extent of the Iranian public’s suffering continues.
As of May 28, Iran had over 143,000 cases and over 7,600 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. These numbers likely cover a fraction of the actual virus fallout. A confidential report by Iran’s parliament research center claims the death toll may be over double the official figure.
Recently, Iranian communications about the coronavirus have mirrored Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns. Their strategy seeks to avoid domestic or international accountability by creating an alternative narrative that minimizes their failures and criticizes America’s response to the pandemic.
Iran’s leaders are also pushing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Ayatollah Khamenei, amongst others, has argued it is an American-made biological weapon. Likewise, Khamenei refuses U.S. aid, speculating American “medicine is a way to spread the virus.” Both arguments are absurd, yet Iran continues to feed these lies to its people and spread them internationally, particularly online.
Earlier this month, Facebook dismantled an Iranian disinformation network with connections to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Unfortunately, Iran will likely create new accounts, restarting the endless game of whack-a-mole that social media companies play to remove fraudulent content from their platforms.
How can America combat this disinformation campaign?
The United States must strive to reveal the truth about the Islamic Republic’s misdeeds by coordinating comprehensive technological and media responses with international partners.
First, providing everyday Iranians with tools to get truthful information weakens the regime. Much as U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty offered alternative programming in Soviet states during the Cold War, supplying greater internet access in Iran would decrease the effectiveness of false narratives. Projects to launch thousands of low-earth-orbit satellites, like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, could provide cheap, uncensored internet access by bypassing local fiber connections. U.S. funding for programs that can provide cheap computers and phones with paid satellite connections can help deliver uncensored information to Iranians.
Likewise, tailored cyber operations can advance policy objectives to disable or minimize the regime’s ability to spread false information. Introducing measured technological constraints on the IRIB can decrease its ability to disseminate the inaccurate narrative about the virus.
Next, the U.S. government should continue its active public engagement about Iran’s disinformation. In addition to the various ongoing press conferences and Twitter exchanges from senior administration officials, candid and accurate messaging directly to the Iranian public, particularly in Farsi, will help widely spread correct information.
However, U.S. influence has its limits. Iranians are less inclined to support media with an overt pro-U.S. message. Messaging must be perceived to be truthful and unbiased.
Therefore, the United States ought to work alongside partner nations, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to attempt to coordinate a diversity of like-minded voices into a shared messaging strategy. Some of the most persuasive messaging against the Islamic Republic comes from Muslim or expatriate groups who share language and a sense of suffering from the abusive hardliners. Tapping into these groups can be immensely helpful.
Finally, coordinated social media messaging strategies with prompt, widespread dissemination can greatly expand the reach of government, journalists, activists, and ordinary individuals. Stronger public-private sector relationships, with government and nongovernmental organizations sharing guidance and non-sensitive information, can help social media companies, in particular, to flag, disclaim, or remove fraudulent material with greater speed and accuracy.
Disinformation continues to be a dangerous and powerful tool that America must combat at home and abroad. Shedding light on false narratives provides the Iranian populace with the knowledge to better ward against the coronavirus lies today, as well as future Iranian disinformation.
RADM David T. Glenn, USCG (ret.) was the Director, Command, Control, Communication and Computer (C4) Systems and Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the US Cyber Command. He was a participant on the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2012 Generals and Admirals Program to Israel. Ari Cicurel is a Senior Policy Analyst at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.