Paper #36. Commanding & Controlling the OODA Loop: Iran’s Narrative Strategy
February 12, 2021
Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
Cyber, Middle East & North Africa, Strategy
This paper applies a narrative weaponization model to decision making (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act), using Iranian disinformation. Papers 23 and 24 did the same with disinformation from China and Russia. Understanding how narrative strategy works in the information environment is key to detecting and countering disinformation.
The purpose of OODA is to operate in a fast and relevant decision cycle, while getting a competitor to make slow or irrelevant decisions. Narrative warfare can upend such rational decision making in two ways. First, by collapsing Observe and Orient (OO) into a single step so that we ingest information. Second, by emotional thinking that out-flanks rational thinking altogether. First, a brief review of the OODA Loop—how it works and how it’s vulnerable.
Observe what’s happening. Orient on the situation to discern meaning. Decide what to do. Act to do it (and don’t act). collect Feedback and repeat
Detailed OODA Loop:
John Boyd’s OODA Loop began as a fighter pilot’s technique to shoot down enemy aircraft before they did the same to him. OODA had to be fast, accurate, and holistic enough to anticipate changes in the environment:
A comprehensive collection of John Boyd’s briefings and related articles and books may be found on Chet Richard’s website. With respect to narrative warfare, the most important phase in the OODA Loop’s multiple loops is Orientation (see slide 13) because it largely determines what you pay attention to in Observation. As artificial intelligence advances to influence what we Observe, we are more vulnerable to being duped into Orienting on what we Observe in certain ways.
We’ll use “Sense” because it’s broader than Observe, which may have been Boyd’s original intent. What we Sense can happen in an instant, but is a complex result of our environment. Boyd described its determinants as heritage and culture, analysis and synthesis, historical experience and new information. Technological advancements enable us to Sense so much, we can get overwhelmed or fixate on one thing. As we shall see, Iran’s ruling narrative strategy is not subtle. It essentially commands and controls its targeted audience to fixate on one narrative.
Being overwhelmed by data and information or becoming fixated on certain data or information is a problem for OODA thinking because we are supposed to orient on a sensation to figure out what it means. If we fail to orient data into some sort of context, we get meaningless information. If we fixate on data and orient it into a narrow context, the information is not that useful. This is where narratives step in to arrange the data and information for us, usually at a subliminal level.
Once that happens, Decide and Act conform to the narrative, rather than being informed by our active critical thinking. We become programmed like an early generation computer:
We accept only structured data (Observe only what Orient allows)
We batch process data into information using machine language only (Orient on limited meanings)
We produce repetitive tasks (Decide and Act predictably)
How can this happen to decision making?
To demonstrate how, we use official Iranian information tracked by the Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard (Alliance for Securing Democracy) and Dr. Ajit Maan’s model of narrative warfare used by terrorists to recruit people and program thinking. ”Warfare” strategy applies when the methods of enforcing compliance are destructive.
Narrative as Strategy
Narrative is a method whereby the experiences of a life time can be provided with meaning by tying them together in a certain “culturally sanctioned” structure.
Narratives are taken-for-granted cultural contexts that provide meaning, such as an identity. As a strategy, a narrative may be formulated as: Narrative = Meaning, Identity, Content, and Structure (Ajit Maan, Dangerous Narratives: Warfare, Strategy, Statecraft, Narrative Strategies Ink, pp. ix; see Paul Cobaugh’s Afghanistan case, pp. 98-107). We’ll add the Content and Structure soon. For now, consider the following interpretations of national Identity that provide Meaning to those who believe in them, along with an example of a narrative for each.
Being American means identifying with democratic values of freedom and equality.
A populist narrative is that of self-reliant individualism; anyone can build a better future through innovation, persistence, and courage.
Being Chinese means identifying with harmonious traditions from the dynasties of a China-centric civilization.
A communist Party narrative is the struggle to overcome a century of foreign imperialism by reclaiming lost territories and respect as a great power.
A rural narrative is living the moral code of Pashtunwali, a local interpretation of Islam that includes customs to retain honor and avoid shame.
Being Iranian means identifying with the Persian civilization’s intellectual heritage, independent culture and respected status.
A narrative among theocrats is Iran preparing the way for the return of the 12th Imam, while preventing internal subversion and foreign control.
Note: the 12th Imam is believed by the ”Twelver” sect of Shia Islam to be mankind’s savior who was “hidden” in 941 and will return with Isa (Jesus Christ) during a period of violence and upheaval to bring a just peace to the world.
The details of narratives are contentious—balancing freedom and equality, imposing Confucian harmony, resolving family dishonor, leading an Islamic revolution, e.g. So the power of narratives is strongest when they are baked-in as beliefs. Then they can become tacit sources of stories, stories that express meaning overtly. For believers of a narrative, that narrative becomes their frame of reference that orients them as they observe and sense reality.
Narrative as Command & Control in the Information Environment
Narratives operate as a command and control system. The method is to orient believers of the narrative to the meaning of what is going on, thereby influencing what they should decide to do (and not do). Influencers arrange different types of information to fit into the targeted audience’s narrative:
Mis-information: when false information is shared, but no harm is meant
Dis-information: when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm
Mal-information: when genuine information is shared to cause harm, as in leaks.
Having related decision making (OODA-style) to narrative strategy and method, we can better understand the power of information. Strategic use of information can con Sensation/Observation and Orientation into a single step. Weaponized and delivered, information becomes a stratagem to deny its targeted victims an independent capability to sense what is happening and to discern meaning for themselves. Why are narratives so powerful?
How Narratives Get Weaponized and Delivered
Narratives are so powerful because they evoke emotion that overrides reason. Strategic narratives appeal to our internalized identities that organize what we sense, sub-consciously. AJit Maan’s four-step model explains how such “colonization of the mind” works.
Note: in each stage, the weaponized information is italicized. The impact on decision making is bolded:
Stage 1 – Structure: selective evidence and faulty cause-and-effect chronologiesappropriate, give meaning to, our experience. This story-telling exploits any belief that we have been victimized by using a utopian beginning, a conflicted middle, and a compelling conclusion. Why? So we take responsibility and act for a better future.
Our Observations and Sensations are being Oriented
Stage 2 – Re-description: follows up the constructed story with artificial dichotomies that manufacture and exacerbate disagreements to reinforce our sense of victimization; false analogies re-describe the story. Why? To normalize the narrative, preempt our questioning, and inculcate us to receive truth.
We are conflating what we Observe and Sense with a sub-conscious narrative that Orients how we think
Stage 3 – Internalization: having targeted us to ingest the structured and re-described narrative, new information urges us to take internal responsibility and externalize blame onto others. Why? To make us feel better and attract other recruits who feel alienated, angry or otherwise vulnerable in some way.
”Implicit guidance & control” is feeding our Observations and Sensations into a tacitly narrated Orientation
Stage 4 – Prescription: having internalized responsibility and externalized blame for information presented to us, more structured information repeats the story to get us to identify with the narrative; once we believe the story is part of our identity, the information prescribes our compliant behavior; our actions legitimize the circular reasoning of this entire psychological assault.
Observe & Orient fit into the narrative; Decide & Act comply with the narrative (like a biased AI).
As an assembled weapon system, narrative functions as follows:
Observe is Orient; Decide is not a hypothesis; Act is not a test; feedback is Closed Loop Learning
Now let’s look at the evidence. Using the italicized weaponized information above as pointers, we can analyze Iranian dis-, mis- and mal-information tracked by Hamilton 2.0.
Iran’s Narrative Warfare Strategy: Content
Hamilton 2.0 is a dashboard that analytically summarizes narratives and topics promoted by Russian, Chinese and Iranian government officials and state-funded media on Twitter, YouTube, news websites, and via official statements at the United Nations. The tool provides a starting point for more in-depth analysis by scraping and processing data then converting it into a visual tracker.
For our baseline, we looked at Tweets over the past 120 days in the top three official accounts, and selected the Top 10 Retweets and the top 10 Likes. These top three accounts are: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Press TV (state-owned), and Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif.
To appreciate the Supreme Leader’s preeminent role in Iran, see the figure below. The Assembly of Experts who select the Supreme Leader consists of 88 clerics (or someone who passes a Guardian Council exam) elected every eight years. The body is dominated by conservatives particularly in the commissions and sub-committee.
In chronological order, here are the top 10 Tweets by Retweets and Likes from 12 October 2020 – 8 February 2021, followed [in brackets] by the weaponized information’s function and my comments:
Stand up to the enemy [prescribe compliance; as in, we must protect our dignity and security]
Top Shia cleric in Iraq Ayatollah Sistani says purchasing goods from Israel is not allowed [prescribe compliance; we note that this an authoritative edict seen as a principled defense of Palestinians]
Trump suggests Osama bin Laden’s death was faked in Pakistan in 2011 and covered up by the Obama administration [selective evidence and faulty cause-and-effect: we note that retweets do indicate that President Trump spread this falsehood; this claims that divisiveness among US presidents and democracy are the cause of conflict]
Why do you insult the Prophet as this is not freedom of expression? questioning the holocaust is perfectly fine [artificial dichotomy; we note that this Tweet was addressed to “French youth” to create divisiveness; this indicates the limits to freedom of speech in the theocracy of Iran]
Palestinian girl breaks out in tears seeing her home that was destroyed by Israeli forces [selective evidence; we note that according to Amnesty International, Israeli forces punitively demolished buildings that lacked Israeli-issued permits, which is permitted by the law of occupation “if absolutely necessary” for military operations]
Building collapses after massive earthquake in Turkey
The ugliness of American liberal democracy is on display [identify with the narrative; as in, mud-slinging between candidates is not polite; we note that this opinion deflects attention away from abuse, torture and judicial punishment in Iran]
Trump is gone so let’s not rely on security for outsiders; Iran extends a hand to its neighbors [take internal responsibility for security; we note that Iran continues to deny supplying arms to Houthis in Yemen despite the evidence provided by US seizures of such arms]
US is hostile to Iran because we will not accept their policies, so we must strengthen ourselves and become powerful [externalize blame; as in, we are strong in resisting US policies and we are not to blame]
Allama Iqbal’s birthday praise for him (helped the cause of establishing Pakistan) [identify with the narrative; as in, solidarity with Muslims]
Former US President Obama reveals Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pressured his administration [identify with the narrative; we note that this exploits the transparency of democracies and reinforces beliefs in a US-Israeli conspiracy against Iran]
Terrorists murdered an Iranian scientist, evidence relates to Israel [identify with the narrative and internalize responsibility to take action]
Turkish President Erdogan reads a poem disrespecting our Azerbaijan which was separated from motherland Iran [externalize blame; as in, we are victims; we note that Azerbaijan contains the largest Shia population after Iran—see historical review of Iran-Azerbaijan relations to include Russian colonization of “ancient Iranian land”]
Erdogan was not informed of the poem’s significance [externalize blame; others don’t know our history]
Ayatollah Khamenei congratulates all Muslims and Christians on the anniversary of the Prophet Jesus Christ [identify with the narrative; as in, we are tolerant of other faiths]
Israeli warplanes attack Gaza [selective evidence and internalize responsibility to take action; we note that this reporting omitted that the attack was reportedly in retaliation for a rocket attack on Israel and targeted the rocket manufacturing site and a Hamas military post]
Instead of fighting COVID, Trump sends B-52s and an armada to us because he wants to fabricate an excuse for war [false analogy; we note that not fighting COVID is a falsehood and that sending aircraft and warships to the Persian Gulf counters the Quds Force and other Iranians waging war in Syria and Iraq]
Our intelligence indicates that Israeli provocateurs plan to to attack Americans in Iraq to provoke Trump into war [identify with the narrative; we note that this dubious claim resonates with those who see US-Israeli conspiracies against Iran]
Anniversary of anti-terrorist martyr’s (Soleimani, former commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) death by the top terrorist in the world [externalize blame; we note that Soleimani was a combatant in Iraq at the time of his death — see alleged crimes against humanity in Syria here]
Trump sought vengeance on his own people and he has the authority to start a nuclear war [identify with the narrative and externalize blame; as in, we treat our people well and are responsible; we note reports of Khamenei ordering to “do whatever it takes to end it” here—300-1500 were killed in protests that began with increased gasoline prices and spread to 100 cities]
Khamenei speaks to residents of Qom on their anniversary of an anti-Shah uprising [prescribe compliant behavior; as in, we are revolutionaries; we note that the Qom protests which ignited broader protests in January 1978 were sparked by an unfavorable (“insulting”) newspaper article about exiled Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini]
Khamenei declares that American and British vaccines are prohibited from entering Iran (not top 10) [identify with the narrative; as in, they are out to get us with their vaccines or they are too incompetent to produce vaccines that work]
Facebook deletes Press TV’s account no reason [identify with the narrative; as in, we are unjustly victimized; we note that in the summer of 2020 Facebook deleted accounts of journalists and civil rights activists throughout the Middle East possibly mis-categorized as terrorists ]
All 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi and UAE, none from Iran [selective evidence; we note that Iranian forces provide explosively formed penetrators that kill Americans and Iraqis]
US should lift all sanctions first, then Iran will decide whether to return to JCPOA [identify with the narrative and externalize the blame; as in, we are just]
US broke the JCPOA for no good reason [identify with the narrative; as in, we are unjustly victimized]
We pride ourselves on the respectful Islamic view of women and strongly condemn the Western view of a commodity and a tool [artificial dichotomy; we note reverse examples in each country; see articles here on mandatory dress codes for women in Iran and what happens to human rights lawyers who defend them]
US should lift all sanctions before Iran decides to return to the JCPOA because we were compliant [selective evidence; we note that the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA because Iran was in the past and is enriching uranium today in excess of agreements]
The end of the American era has begun [false analogy and identify with the narrative; as in, we have the momentum]
Biden has only a choice: break with Trump’s failed policies or build on his failures [externalize blame and false dichotomy; as in, it’s all America’s fault and there’s only one choice}
There were other Tweets from Khamenei that were taken down that: suggested Western women were being raped because of their non-Islamic attire; repeated anti-Navalny Russian themes; repeated claims of fraud in the US elections; amplified partisanship in the US; and blamed democracy for the moral decline of the West.
Narrative Analysis: Structure
Next, we analyze our sample of information content in terms of Structure, Re-description, Internalization and Prescription.
The narrative of Iran’s theocrats is taken as:
Iran must prepare the way for the 12th Imam while preventing internal subversion and external control.
As a general rule, we treated selective evidence and faulty cause-and-effect as the Structure of the weaponized information. We put artificial dichotomies and false analogies into the Re-description of that structured information. We categorized internalize responsibility and externalize blame as Internalization. Finally, we placed identify with the narrative and prescribe compliance into Internalization or Prescription.
Let’s look at the structure of the story-telling, keeping in the back of our minds the theocracy’s narrative—comply with Shia Islamic morals, and prevent domestic subversion and foreign control.
The US and Israel are threats to Iran and the region
The US President and the US democratic system is dishonest, corrupt, immoral and politically degenerating. Their co-conspirator Israel attacks civilians in Gaza and destroys their houses. The terrorists that attacked the US on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, none from Iran. We complied with the JCPOA that we all signed but the US left the agreement to sanction us for no reason. They need to drop the sanctions first then we will decide whether to return to JCPOA.
Note: The overall structure is one of self-righteousness. If you believe in the narrative, then the selective evidence and faulty cause-and-effect don’t matter. The story reinforces the narrative, which is what matters.
Iran is the protector of Islam who cares about humanity and treats women with respect, in contrast to the US which is in decline
People in France insult the Prophet and wrongly think that is freedom of expression. Questioning the Holocaust is freedom of expression. Instead of fighting COVID Trump sends warplanes and warships our way. Iran respects women while westerners use them as a commodity and a tool. The end of the American era has begun. Biden has to either break with Trump’s failed policies or build on Trump’s failures.
Note: Building upon the above structure, the story and its referent (the underlying narrative) get re-described with more intensity via false analogies and opportunistic blaming of others. Unless the reader examines the re-described story with alternative evidence (such as, who’s subverting and controlling whom?), the repeated ideas get passively received as truth.
Despite Iran’s efforts to extend peace and security, Iran is surrounded by threats and hate, so we must be strong to be secure
Trump‘s political career is over, so let’s take care of our own security—Iran extends our hand to do so. The US is hostile to Iran because we do not accept their policies, so we have to become powerful. The Israeli assassination of our scientist shows their hatred to us. Even President Erdogan disrespects the (Russian) seizure of Azerbaijan, which is ours. Israeli warplanes keep attacking the innocents of Gaza. Our martyr, General Soleimani, was killed by the number one terrorist in the world, Trump, a vengeful person even toward his own people. He has the authority to start a nuclear war (so we need nuclear weapons to deter him). The JCPOA issue is entirely the fault of the US. Our Facebook account gets deleted for no reason.
Note: This stage also re-describes the story, with more emotion. Framing events as slights to values such as dignity, righteousness and justice moves people to take responsibility while blaming others. Even if events falsify the narrative (such as, the Guardian Council subverts or controls Iranian identity [intellect, independence, and status]), emotional thinking overrides that rational thinking.
Iranians are committed to Islamic principles in serving and safeguarding the nation
Stand up to the enemy. Khamenei speaks on the Prophet’s birthday anniversary. Sistani has spoken—don’t buy goods from Israel. See the ugliness of American liberal democracy. We honor Allama Iqbal’s birthday – Pakistani nationalism. Obama reveals Netanyahu pressured him—what can we do about that? By now, the assassination of our scientists calls for action. Congratulations to Muslims and Christians on Jesus Christ’s birthday. We are revolutionaries who overthrew the Shah to achieve national independence and honor. Israeli provocateurs even plan to attack US in Iraq to start a war. US British vaccines are prohibited here.
Note: The bottom line is to comply with the commands and controls set forth by the elites of Iran’s Shiite Islamic jurisprudence.
In applying a narrative weaponization model to Iranian disinformation, we found four headlines of official Iran’s narrative strategy:
The US and Israel are threats to the region
Iran is the humane protector of Islam that treats women with respect, in contrast to the US which is in decline
Iran is surrounded by threats and hate, and must build strength to secure peace and security
Iranians follow Islamic principles in serving and safeguarding the nation
“Commanding and controlling” the OODA Loop describes how Iran’s theocrats attempt to influence individuals in the information environment. This unsubtle method targets all cultural orientations and is likely to be ineffective against narratives that value family authority or secular authority over religious-national authority.
Based on the chronology, content and structure of the Tweets, the narrative strategy‘s function is to amplify threats against Iran and justify a greater role for Iran in regional security. People who believe the narrative are receptive audiences. Official Tweets that do not fit other narratives catalyze calls for reform. Iran is culturally and ethnically diverse—Kurds, Ahwaz Arabs, Baluchistan and Azerbaijanis comprise more than half of Iran’s people. Sixty percent of the population is under 30 years of age. What are their narratives? Research is needed.
In the context of other Iranian nuclear, cyber and military activities, the gap between narrative rhetoric and coercive reality gets bigger:
Iranian leaders claim to abide by a fatwa (religious decree) issued by former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini which bans the development or use of nuclear weapons. There is no direct evidence of the original fatwa but authoritatively asserting that it does, fits the self-righteous narrative. This position contradicts the reality of past and current nuclear threats, the latest of which comes from Iran’s intelligence chief, but does afford room to back down with pride.
Last month, Iran and Russia signed an agreement on information security. Iranian leaders’ concerns over ”media terrorism” from foreign journalists and the need for “internet sovereignty” fit Iran’s narrative as well. The claims co-exist with Russian and Iran cyber attacks and disinformation, uncredibly denied (see book reviews on: Sandworm by Greenberg, Active Measures by Rid, and This is How They Tell Me the World Ends by Perlroth).
The second trilateral military exercise among Iran, Russia and China, scheduled for this month, reinforces Iran’s narrative of strengthening its role in regional security. The selection of two other authoritarian regimes bears some historical resemblance to a Tripartite Pact seeking to establish new regional orders.
Iran’s storyline strains under the weight of its own hypocrisy in two areas—projecting Iran as the humane protector of Islam and enforcing Islamic practices for domestic social order. The lighter lift has been casting the US and Israel as threats and strengthening Iran’s regional role. This difference should be taken into account by US and allied strategies.
One recommendation is easy. As the Biden administration adjusts the Trump administration’s Iran policy, the Abraham Accords should be part of an effective counter-narrative to promote regional peace. The accords tie Israel and Muslim states together in trade and investment and cannot be unilaterally negotiated away.