Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iranian Officials Renew Warnings Over 'Soft War'

A woman holds a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while attending Friday Prayers at Tehran University, which hosted the National Soft War Forum.
A woman holds a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while attending Friday Prayers at Tehran University, which hosted the National Soft War Forum.
To counter the "soft war" allegedly being waged against the Islamic republic, the Iranian authorities this week went to the front line: Tehran University.

The university, seen by Tehran as an avenue through which Iran's enemies carry out their supposed nonmilitary efforts to destabilize the country and lead to its demise, hosted the First National Soft War Forum on October 26-27.

The event included speeches by senior officials, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who praised "Iranian Islam" in the face of what he described as "American Islam." Several panels were conducted, an exhibition was on display, and a "soft war" webpage -- intended to be a Wikipedia-style catch-all for documenting actions taken against Iran -- was launched, although the page went down within a few hours.

Since the country's disputed June 2009 presidential vote and the unrest that followed, the term "soft war" has become prevalent in the vocabulary of Iranian officials.

Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has joined the fray, warning that the soft war is the greatest threat facing Iran, and offering assurances that measures are being taken to counter it.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad pointed to the difference between "Iranian Islam" and "American Islam."
They include toughening Internet censorship and surveillance, attempting to ban contacts between Iranian civil-society activists and academics with the outside world, and ideologically-rooted efforts to make universities more Islamic and mute voices of dissent.

Fighting On Many Fronts

Iranian-born, Sweden-based sociologist Mehrdad Darvishpour says Tehran has used the "soft war" as an excuse to silence domestic opposition. He believes this week's forum and fresh "soft war" warnings could signal a new wave of repression is on the way.

Iran's concerns over dissent and discontent inside the country "have increased due to the increase of sanctions and international pressure," Darvishpour says. "Usually the holding of such seminars is a preparation for expanding repression inside the country, because in war conditions, countries try to limit liberties and act with greater authority."

In recent months, the targets and weapons of the "soft war" as defined by the Iranian authorities have expanded. Joining the media and cyberspace in the battlefield are women's half-hearted efforts to veil themselves, as well as criticism of subsidy cuts, which could foment public discontent and lead to unrest.

Speaking during the first day of the forum, Khamenei's adviser on the armed forces, Yahya Rahim Safavi, said the issue of removing subsidies was one of the targets of the "soft war." He said the government's fledgling plan to cut subsidies was essential to Iran's progress, and called on all "political groups, intellectuals, students, and university professors" to support it.

Darvishpour says the focus on countering the "soft war" will have the effect of stifling public expression of discontent. "Anyone who might be unhappy with the [government's] economic policies will remain silent," he says, "because it will be said that is part of the 'soft war' that foreign countries have launched against Iran."

In a recent example, earlier this month national police chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said the country's political opposition sought to mount an "economic sedition" after the implementation of the subsidy reforms.

"The remnants of last year's political sedition are continuing their activities," Ahmadi-Moqaddam said on October 1. "The sedition has taken other shapes such as economic sedition." He said that the police would deal with those who seek to complement "the enemies' economic pressures."

Enemies Everywhere

Journalist Vahid Pourostad, who fled Iran recently after being arrested during the postelection unrest, says the authorities use the so-called soft war to blame outside forces for the country's ills.

Police remove satellite dishes from roofs in Tehran. Satellite TV is said to a weapon in the "soft war."
"They say the only reason for the protests and criticism are media and some individuals," Pourostad says. "They don't seem to believe that their own management and actions play a role."

Pourostad says his interrogators accused him of being used by Iran's enemies to further their aims via Persian-language media.

Senior legislator Alaedin Borujerdi warned during the Soft War Forum that "the enemy" had brought their fight inside people's homes, using the pen and other tools, such as the satellite-television dishes seen in the country's villages.

Supreme Leader Khamenei earlier this year described students as "young soldiers" and professors as "commanders" who can confront the soft war.

But one 22-year-old student in Tehran tells RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Iran's approach is only increasing the gap between the establishment and those pushing for democratic change.

He considers the "soft war" hype to be part of a psychological campaign by the Iranian establishment, one that merely exposes its own fear of its people's thirst for change.
  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.