Seven years ago, the Obama administration launched a “virtual U.S. embassy” for Iran, a friendly, engaging online portal that gave Iranians a window on American democracy and information about cultural exchanges.
These days, the website sends a different message.
Story Continued Below
Instead of being packed with soft profiles of Iranian-Americans and presidential greetings on Muslim holidays, it touts the latest U.S. sanctions on Iran, features speeches deriding Iran’s leaders and profiles Americans detained in Iran. A window pops up quoting President Donald Trump: “The Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims are its own people.”
The virtual embassy’s change in tone is just one example of how, in lieu of a traditional war with Tehran, the Trump administration has launched an information war instead.
Over the past year, the Republican administration has repurposed and deployed various tools of communication — from social media hashtags to presidential speeches — to hammer Iran’s Islamist leaders and fan the Iranian people’s grievances against their government. A Persian-language Twitter account the Obama administration launched to spread cheery images of America and its leaders is now used to mock and criticize Iranian leaders. Anniversaries of tragic events that were once marked with sober remarks now also include forceful condemnations of the Iranian regime.
The latest salvo on Friday came from Trump himself, just as oil-related sanctions on Iran were prepared to fully to take effect Monday. The president tweeted out a poster-like image of himself emblazoned with the phrase “Sanctions are coming, November 5” using a font and slogan similar to ones from the HBO show “Game of Thrones.”
The information campaign is arguably the most comprehensive the U.S. has ever run against Iran, according to foreign policy specialists. Even some critics of Trump’s overarching Iran policy concede the messaging element is surprisingly creative and intense.
“What has been impressive is the rigor to which the administration has stuck to it,” said Ned Price, an ardent Trump detractor who was a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “They have not squandered a single opportunity to raise this, to harp on this, to even create opportunities to advance this messaging.”
In addition to predictable denunciations of Iran’s military and terrorist actions, the U.S. has highlighted Iran’s water shortages and smog-filled air, detailed the financial corruption of the country’s leaders and told the gut-wrenching stories of individual Iranian prisoners.
Aides to the president have cast the information campaign as part of a multi-pronged effort — which also includes sanctions like those that lock in Monday — designed to pressure the Iranian regime to change its behavior and act like a “normal” country. The rhetorical rumble has intensified since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal in May over the objections of European and other countries.
“The Trump administration will continue to reveal the regime’s illicit revenue streams, malign activities, crooked self-dealing, and savage oppression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Foreign Affairs essay about the administration’s Iran policy. “The Iranian people themselves deserve to know the grotesque level of self-interest that fuels the regime’s actions.”
The Iranian government has punched back with its own messaging offensive.
Publicly, Iranian leaders often bash the U.S. government, recently saying the “protection of America” emboldened Saudi Arabia to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Privately, Iran is suspected of backing a disinformation operation targeting Americans. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube announced in recent months that they have removed numerous Iranian-linked accounts that were engaging in a years-long scheme to manipulate Americans and push anti-Israel and pro-Iran narratives. The messaging potentially reached millions of people.
The State Department declined to discuss its information campaign, and U.S. intelligence officials would not say what sort of similar but covert operations are in play. But a former administration official familiar with the State Department’s effort said there did not appear to be an overall guiding strategy, but rather a desire to try things and see what will work.
“It seems to be very ad hoc,” the former official said.
Last month, for instance, Trump and Pompeo used the anniversary of the Beirut Marine barracks bombings to slam Iran, an alleged culprit in the 1983 attack, in separate settings.
“The attack was carried out by Hezbollah, which Iran was instrumental in founding a year earlier to advance its radical agenda, and remain its main patron today,” Trump said in remarks, referencing the Shiite Muslim militia the U.S. classifies as a terrorist group. “And we are doing a big number on Iran today, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Past administrations have also marked the deadly anniversary with somber statements. But Trump also used the occasion to sign into law new sanctions on Hezbollah, and the State Department quickly put up information about the legislation on the virtual embassy site.
The State Department’s homepage, meanwhile, has been prominently featuring an “Iran Sanctions Countdown” on its homepage ahead of Monday’s oil-related sanctions deadline. The countdown lists the 12 demands that the United States has made against Iran, a list that effectively calls on the Iranian government to abandon its current foreign policy.
The document lays out many traditional U.S. complaints against Iran, including its support for terrorism. But one striking section details the dire environmental situation in parts of Iran, where water shortages are acute and air quality is poor. Such crises have recently sparked several protests in Iran.
The report argues that government mismanagement and corruption are causing Iran’s environmental challenges. It argues, for instance, that excessive dam building has exacerbated water problems yet “lined the pockets” of Iranian leaders and points out that Iran has been imprisoning environmentalists. (It’s a focus that draws eye-rolls among Trump critics who note the president has been rolling back environmental protections at home.)
Past U.S. administrations — Republican and Democratic — have tried to bypass Iran’s government to directly reach its people, many of whom are young and believed to be pro-American in their personal views.
The Republican George W. Bush administration, which labeled Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” and made democracy promotion a key part of his foreign policy, launched Radio Farda. The broadcaster tried to cut through Iran’s state-controlled, anti-American media to offer more accurate picture of the United States.
Obama, a Democrat, also sought to engage Iranians in multiple ways as he pursued a deal to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The agreement was ultimately struck in 2015, with the support and help of China, Russia and the European Union.
Aside from the virtual embassy, Obama aides launched a Persian-language Twitter account, @USAdarFarsi, that tried to educate Iranians about U.S. democracy without being overly harsh on the government in Tehran.
Under Trump, however, the @USAdarFarsi account now routinely tweets out facts, figures and even cartoons that criticize Iranian leaders and praise ordinary Iranians who defy them. A major theme the account hits is how much money the Iranian regime sends to proxy militias elsewhere in the world — money that could have been spent on the Iranian people, it notes.
The account also features Iranian dissidents detained by the government, such as Hengameh Shahidi, a journalist and political activist. These tweets carry the hashtag #PrisonersofIran.
One popular recurring character on the various platforms is Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran. Hook oversees the Iran Action Group, a team in charge of parts of the information campaign and making sure that other countries abide by U.S. sanctions on Iran. He also regularly gives speeches slamming Iranian leaders.
Pompeo is another frequently featured U.S. official in the information campaign. The secretary of state uses his own Twitter account to constantly needle Iran. In June, he tweeted out a chart of indeterminate sourcing that appeared to show the number of protests rising in Iran. “Hmm… Can this be explained?” he asked in the tweet.
Trump aides have also sought to win over the Iranian diaspora.
In July, Pompeo gave a speech to specially invited Iranian-Americans in which he detailed many of the regime’s abuses — including the millions in assets hoarded by Iran’s clerical leaders.
“These hypocritical holy men have devised all kinds of crooked schemes to become some of the wealthiest men on Earth while their people suffer,” he said.
The Trump administration has also touted an expansion of the Farsi-language broadcast offerings from U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and Radio Farda. The initiative, dubbed VOA 365, is expected to officially launch in January. Some videos available now cover major events in the U.S. as well as news relevant to Iran.
On the surface, the goal of the pugilistic rhetoric appears to be inflaming the Iranian people’s discontent with their leaders while also turning Iran into more of a pariah globally. It’s far from clear, though, how much success the campaign is having.
It’s difficult to gauge how many Iranians inside the Muslim-majority country are seeing the barrage of U.S. information, given the digital blockades that Tehran has erected. The U.S. Agency for Global Media, which is government funded but editorially independent, estimated that its outlets “reach 23.4 percent of Iranian adults on a weekly basis across all languages and media platforms.”
The @USAdarFarsi account has also nearly doubled its following since Trump took office, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. But it’s unknown how many of those followers are in Iran, where Twitter is supposedly banned.
The Trump administration’s repeated public declarations that it is not seeking to oust the Iranian regime also may be confusing to Iranians, some analysts said. The administration says it wants the regime’s behavior to change, but some experts say its public demands suggest that Trump’s team wants a different government in Tehran.
“You have a public diplomacy campaign that is effectively supporting regime change but can’t speak its name,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution.
There’s also the possibility the Trump administration’s message repels Iranians who fear that regime change would cause the country to descend into a chaotic battleground like nearby Libya and Yemen.
There are Iranians who think, “OK, I may not be able to leave my house without my veil on, but at least I’m not getting bombed every day,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation.
Some find the messaging hypocritical. In addition to the environmental disconnect, the same U.S. president who bemoans the victimization of the Iranian people has imposed a travel ban barring them from American soil.
The campaign appears aimed partly at Trump’s domestic political base, including conservative pro-Israel groups who fear Iran’s rise in the Middle East, some critics said. Several experts also questioned the accuracy of the information used by the Trump team, including its claim that Iran used much of its financial assets that were unfrozen by the nuclear deal to fund terrorism.
“I believe the script to be wrong and misguided and even deceitful in some ways,” Price said.
Others applauded the Trump administration’s willingness to pressure the government in Tehran.
The timing is particularly good now, some said, because the Iranian economy is in bad shape and the people’s discontent is frequently manifesting itself in protests. These observers note that many Iranians were stung after Obama stayed largely quiet in 2009 when Iranian demonstrators hit the streets in what became known as the Green Movement.
“The Iranian people aren’t on the streets because of the U.S. government. They’re on the street because they’re fed up,” said Mariam Memarsadeghi, co-founder of Tavaana, a group dedicated to helping civil society in Iran. “When the regime and the people see the U.S. government constantly scrutinizing and aware of what’s happening, the people will feel bolstered, and the regime will feel less confident that it can get away with violence against peaceful protesters.”