October 10, 2023

The Soft War: Understanding Iran’s Domestic Ideological Crisis

Key Takeaways:

  • Iran is facing a serious domestic crisis that threatens its regime’s long-term survival. Large-scale, violent protests against the political system have become increasingly common and frequent in recent years, as the Mahsa Amini protest movement highlighted in late 2022.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei frames this mounting dissatisfaction with the regime, especially among Iranian youth, as part of a US-led “soft war” meant to erode public confidence in the political system and incite gradual regime change from within Iran.
  • The regime is trying to counter the perceived soft war and preserve itself by building a network of state bodies to indoctrinate Iranian youth and increase public support for the regime and its worldview. This effort—which the supreme leader initiated and delegated to key allies—is increasing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’s control over the domestic Iranian information space.
  • Iranian leaders have correctly diagnosed the root of the recent internal unrest as an increasingly insurmountable ideological rift between the regime and its population. Paradoxically, Khamenei’s soft-war efforts will more likely inflame anti-regime sentiments than inspire popular support for the regime.

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Executive Summary

The Islamic Republic of Iran has entered a serious domestic crisis that threatens the regime’s long-term survival and that the Mahsa Amini protest movement has deepened. The regime’s killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 sparked a series of spontaneous demonstrations that devolved into a countrywide and monthslong protest movement and fundamentally altered the relationship between the Islamic Republic and its people. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has correctly diagnosed the root of the Mahsa Amini movement as an increasingly insurmountable ideological rift between the regime and Iran’s youth but has chosen to confront his restive people rather than accommodate them.

Khamenei has blamed waning regime support on a so-called ideological soft war that he believes the US is waging against the Iranian population, especially the youth. Khamenei has built and is increasingly reinforcing an ideological infrastructure to counter mounting anti-regime sentiments among Iranian youth. These reactive efforts are multipronged and pervasive; exist at the national, provincial, and virtual levels; and aim to counter Western influence in Iran. Soft war encompasses censoring the internet and media, promoting pro-regime cultural initiatives, increasing control of Iranian educational and cultural entities, and monitoring the population to punish those who fail to adhere to the regime’s stringent ideology.

Iran’s soft-war policies reflect Supreme Leader Khamenei’s long-held concern that demographic changes and waning revolutionary ideals present an existential threat to the regime’s survival. The soft-war effort signals a broader policy shift in Tehran wherein the regime increasingly prioritizes addressing soft-power threats. Iranian officials have calculated in recent years that the US will not invade Iran. Instead, they have expressed alarm about a potential domestic uprising—and possible regime overthrow—inspired by Western and Western-affiliated cultural products.

This rhetorical shift became most salient in 2015 and 2016, as Iran joined the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and Khamenei concretized it by granting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) greater control over state media production, distribution, and indoctrination. The IRGC’s increased influence over the Iranian information space is further diminishing the already-limited political plurality in the regime.

The regime—at least in its current form— cannot sustain itself without the support of Iran’s youth. Because 48 percent of Iranians are between age 25 and 54, almost half of Iran’s population has little or no memory of the Islamic Revolution and the formative Iran-Iraq War. This demographic must eventually occupy key roles in the regime but is increasingly spearheading countrywide acts of anti-regime defiance. Khamenei’s soft-war strategy is an inadequate response to the Iranian people’s grievances that will instead likely exacerbate the very anti-regime sentiments he seeks to suppress.

Khamenei’s failure to reconcile the differences between the Iranian people and his political system has serious implications for the Islamic Republic’s future. Khamenei’s endorsement of censorship, indoctrination, propaganda, and limitations on political plurality will likely foster deeper distrust of the regime among Iranian youth. The regime’s failure to make any concessions to protesters, such as abolishing mandatory veiling or the morality patrol, will likely fuel these anti-regime sentiments further. The supreme leader’s flawed soft-war strategy carries the additional risk of widening intra-regime fissures at a particularly sensitive juncture in Iran’s history as 84-year-old Khamenei prepares to eventually be succeeded.

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