The Pacing Threat of Iran’s Influence Operations

  • Middle East Policy Council

    The Middle East Policy Council is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1981 to provide policymakers and the public with credible, comprehensive information and analysis on political, economic, and cultural issues pertaining to U.S.-Middle East.

Alexander Donlon

Alexander Donlon, Master’s Student at George Mason University, Fall 2023 Intern at Middle East Policy Council

“Information influence operation” refers to the use of informational capacities such as the internet, news media, or social networks to gain strategic advantage within the international setting. While Russia and China are typically thought of as the pacing challenges to the United States in the era of information warfare, Iran is beginning to show its immense potential to effectively leverage these capabilities to influence international policy. Through a combination of media manipulation and cyber capabilities that use deception to augment discord, Iran has created a formidable information-operation capacity that should be considered a serious threat to the United States’ national security. 

Iran’s use of information operations is not surprising considering the country’s reliance on asymmetric forms of warfare to exert influence. Iran finds itself with ambitions for regional dominance in a region full of strategic threats with significant but not overwhelming military capabilities. To this extent, Iran has created a defense strategy that relies on asymmetric capabilities such as an integrated network of proxies, the sponsoring of terrorism, and information warfare. 

While Iran’s information operation strategies have been in use for some time, the increasing frequency and effectiveness to which they are utilized today is concerning. Iran now represents one of the most capable disinformation states in the world. This is emphasized by the fact that, along with countries such as Russia, China, Israel, and the United States, Iran commits significant resources to its information warfare strategy, including a large workforce.

One of its primary strategies is the exploitation of social media. Iran uses a large amount of fake accounts to flood the information space with pro-regime narratives that are then amplified by more fake accounts. The playbook is simple: the emergence and propagation of deceptive pro-Iranian narratives sows discord to promote the Islamic Republic’s ambitions.

Known as “sock-puppets” (a term used by Russian agents to describe fake social media accounts), accounts can pose as political activists or as ordinary people like @Aliciahernan3, a self-described mom, wife, and lover of peace that was one one of more than 7,000 accounts taken down in 2019 for media manipulation. Iranian information manipulation also takes place on Farsi Twitter, where there is evidence that inauthentic accounts insert themselves into divisive conversations at a high rate to promote partisan pro-regime ideology. 

Overall, pro-regime social media influence has had a significant effect on both domestic and international politics as narratives are used to increase dissent abroad while quelling it domestically. Social media manipulation remains one of Iran’s most utilized and most effective informational strategies, and the state has been linked to Facebook or Twitter account takedowns in more than 40 countries.

Within the internet and media sphere, Iran also leverages a collection of websites and media firms that are controlled by or sympathetic to the Iranian government to propagate pro-regime narratives. The large state media apparatus is used to suggest that internal protests are separatist in nature or influenced by foreign powers, as was the case in 2022 during internal protests and those in neighboring regions. Iran also projects its disinformation strategies abroad, where the United States government is consistently busy rooting out and taking down pro-Iranian websites. 

Fake Iranian websites have had real impacts on countries’ foreign and diplomatic relations. For example, the false reporting by Iranian-controlled media about a potential Israeli nuclear response to Pakistan over its alleged support for Syria caused friction between the two countries as Islamabad took the threat seriously. The Iranian government has also been able to infiltrate the U.S. policy space by placing academics within the think tank media sphere, where they have the ability to influence government agencies. 

Indeed, the 2014 “Iran Experts Initiative,” which was an intentional effort by the Iranian government to extend its influence, shows the wide-reaching capability of these influence operations. Although the initiative is nearly a decade old, its effects on the U.S. policy space are still being discussed today. While these operations present significant concern, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of Iranian experts remain credible and uninfluenced by Tehran’s government.

Iran also has the capability to use potent cyberattack operations to augment its information operations. Most of Iran’s cyber operations are run from “Cotton Sandstorm” (formally known as NEPTUNIUM), a website sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for its attempted manipulation of the 2020 presidential election. According to a report by Microsoft, Iranian cyber tactics include SMS messaging, utilization of N-day vulnerabilities, and system-compromising malware that has been used to attack Israel and its normalization process with Saudi Arabia, promote division in Bahrain, and pack “a retaliatory punch” against adversaries.

Furthermore, in 2020, two Iranian men were charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for hacking into a Florida voter database and emailing threats and a fabricated video to registered voters. Finally, in November 2023, an Iranian hacking group with ties to the IRGC (called the “Cyber Av3ngers”) was linked to a cyber attack on critical U.S. infrastructure that spanned multiple states and targeted at least five companies involved in water and food production. This recent attack emphasizes the increasing threat Iranian influence operations now pose to the American homeland. 

Fortunately, in their 2023 Annual Threat Assessment, the U.S. intelligence community recognized the significant threat presented by cyber-enabled Iranian influence operations. The community’s assessment, which specifically highlighted Iran’s confidence in levying its capabilities against technologically-sophisticated adversaries like the United States and Israel, represents a significant first step to counter a pressing threat. 

Ultimately, Iran’s significant and still-growing capacity for information operations represents a pacing threat to the United States, as its ability to effectively combine media manipulation and cyber operations to create discord poses a challenge to national security in the present and future. While the U.S. has significant informational capabilities of its own, the country still remains vulnerable to Iranian disinformation and cyberattacks. Being vigilant is especially important during polarizing times headlined by a presidential election in 2024 and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. Therefore, the United States must continue to commit resources into uncovering and combating Iran’s influence strategies. 

  • Middle East Policy Council

    The Middle East Policy Council is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1981 to provide policymakers and the public with credible, comprehensive information and analysis on political, economic, and cultural issues pertaining to U.S.-Middle East.

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