Paper #45. AI-assisted Psychological Strategies: Human-directed Critical Thinking to Disarm Theocratic Strategy

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Cyber, Leadership, Middle East & North Africa, Security, Strategy
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This article completes our series on AI-assisted strategy, but with a stronger emphasis on combined effects. I use the language of combined effects strategy. Combined effects strategy is a broader alternative to the prevailing paradigm of combined arms that dominates failed US security strategy.

Unlike papers #42 and #43 that focused on either cooperative or confrontational physical strategies of Russia and China, this paper blends cooperative and confrontational psychological strategy as practiced in Iran.

Contemporary Iran presents a strategic mix that differs from China and Russia in one vital respect. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, one that rules over an increasingly secular society.[1] This difference places narrative strategy and warfare at the center of regime legitimacy.

Iran’s narrative weaponizes information with flawed thinking. The strategy consists of psychological cooperation and confrontation, backed by physical instruments of power.

Seeker provides an initial step for understanding Iran’s combined effects strategy, which is followed by The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard. The latter tracks information manipulation by Iran, Russia, and China.

Narrative Warfare in Combined Effects Strategy

Narrative strategies fit into the psychological dimension of the combined-effects framework. Directed at a targeted audience, they seek to assure or intimidate will, and enhance or neutralize capability:

Concepts of Influence and Effects, Psychological Dimension (Bolded)

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the US and British-installed Shah, Iran’s ruling theocracy has manipulated Twelver Shiism to assure believers and intimidate dissenters of their right to rule. The clerics’ narrative generates “persuasive compellence,” the domestic core of Iran’s overall combined effect strategy.

This sacred claim enhances the capability of theocrats to maintain political power and neutralize that of opponents. Naturally the latter are portrayed as less pious. The Supreme Leader and his personally appointed advisors on the Guardian Council interpret Sharia law to persuade the populace and compel competitors to comply with their decisions. The current Supreme Leader, Guardian Council members, and top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps justify their actions as preparations for the return of the 12th Imam.[2]

Persuasive compellence does not go uncontested in Iran. Iranian elites overtly support the Supreme Leader while covertly competing for political control. Competitors include the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, the IRGC’s Quds force commander, the President, the Islamic Republic of Iran Army (IRIA) commander, and reformist members of the Guardian Council. As in Russia and China, democratic institutions that do exist are manipulated. To wit, the candidates for President must be approved by the Guardian Council controlled by the Supreme Leader (the Grand Ayatollah).

With persuasive compellence undergirding theocratic rule, the Islamic Republic’s coercion is divinely justified. That’s very convenient. The politicized IRGC and its elite Quds Force wage irregular warfare abroad while the less ideological IRIA secures Iran’s borders with conventional operations. Any nuclear weapons are likely secured by the IRGC under the nominal control of the Supreme Leader. Iranian operations also support the theocracy’s regional goal of a Greater Persia. This vision to recapture the prestige and influence of previous empires is supposed to inspire Iranian youth.  

The problem is, Iran’s religious and ethnic diversity complicates religious elites’ control. The population includes a large tribal-based and refugee population that threatens Persian dominance. The latter comprise 60% of Iranians. Shia Islam provides an alternative basis for unity because 89% of Iranians ascribe to it. Only 9 percent of Iranians are Sunni Muslims. 

In this context, Iran’s theocrats invoke religious nationalism to justify religious territoriality. Namely, the right to expand one’s faith anywhere.[3] The exceptionalist narrative of a revolutionary theocracy fighting off foreign threats permeates Iran’s combined-effects strategy. That competes with say, US exceptionalism infusing a combined arms strategy.

Iran’s Combined Effect

Iran’s combined-effect strategy is not a liberal-democratic style “on-off” switch of “what-deterrence-fails.” It’s an “all-effects” strategy that is broadly cooperative and confrontational across all domains: 

                                                   d i m e s* Df Dt P Cp Cr

                                    diplomatic, informational, military and social
                          Defense, Deterrence, Persuasion, Compellence and Coercion
(cooperative effects are italicized)

*Note my stubborn inclusion of “social” in the acronym, dimes (not dime), because in my view US strategy continues to ignore this vital component of a comprehensive strategy.

Iran’s narrative of persuasive compellence interacts with defensive, deterrent and coercive effects. That is, it’s not just a combined arms campaign (the “m” in dimes) that is waged separately from diplomatic, informational, economic and social efforts and effects.

While the diplomatic, informational, military, and social effects are quite visible, the economic aspect is less so. Savant X Seeker helps reveal the breadth of Iran’s overall combined effect strategy.

Method

First, I directed Seeker to look for relationships among the basic terms in the Combined Effects Strategy framework, plus Iran. This produced a 3-D picture of nodes and linkages. Each relationship is evidenced by passages from the sources, which reveal the breadth of Iranian strategy: 

Seeker’s Initial Rendering of Relationships

Second, I selected the node, Iran, to reduce and focus on related nodes. As I explored the relationships, I used Seeker’s Insights feature to identify further nth-order connections.[4]  This feature allowed me to explore many relationships of strategic cooperation and confrontation. By adjusting the scale and scope of the search, the breadth of Iran’s strategy became more apparent.

Discovery

Iran’s support of diverse clients is far-flung, ranging from Christian Armenia against Russia- and Turkey-supported Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, to Sunni groups such as Hamas against Israel, and the Taliban against the erstwhile coalition in Afghanistan. Iran’s use of force in Iraq against that US-led coalition, and independently against ISIS, promote Iranian influence in local politics. Such political and social influence defends against and deters intervention in Iran. Iran’s support of Houthi rebels against Saudi-supported Yemeni regimes are also part of a regional network. With such clients, Iran competes against the influence of surrounding states. 

From Saudi Arabia in the west, to the north and east across the Levant through Iraq and Central Asia south to the Arabian Sea, Iran’s activities project influence. Iranian forces routinely attack weaker targets via proxies to coerce and secure territorial gains. Against more capable forces such as Israeli and American targets, Iranian attacks provoke responses such as Israeli destruction of IRGC training camps in Syria and the US killing of the IRGC Quds Force commander (a combatant in Iraq).

Persian pride demanded that each of those be avenged with further Iranian attacks. For their part, Iranian hackers target energy companies and traffic in the Gulf as well as governments, banks, businesses, and individuals deemed to be anti-Iranian. In addition to espionage, the IRGC and contracted hackers conduct distributed-denial-of-service, theft and ransomware attacks against global targets to include Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, and allies such as South Korea. 

Besides targeting capability, Iranian strategy is about demonstrating willpower. The effects tend to be unpredictable. At times, Iran’s attacks assure its proxies and nationalists, and intimidates its dissenters and detractors. Harassment of Persian Gulf shipping increases oil prices and so decreases Iran’s value as a reliable partner. Continued human losses — a result of IRGC activities abroad, and economic decline — a result of sanctions, periodically trigger uprisings in Iran. 

Seeker was particularly helpful in identifying Iran’s use of economic ways and means within the combined effects strategy framework.

Two main efforts became evident: (a) partnerships to displace US financial dominance; and (b) a network of clients and proxies. 

A prime target of the first effort is the US-based SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which Seeker connected to three contexts: 

  • The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in response to Iran’s nuclear development program
  • US and European Union-led sanctions against Russia for its invasion and annexation of Crimea, assassinations and cyber attacks
  • Potential sanctions against China for human rights violations, economic aggression and territorial seizures

The SWIFT banking system is an international standards-setting messaging system headquartered in Belgium that manages the secure transfer of funds worldwide. SWIFT suspended access to some Iranian banks after the US imposed oil and financial sanctions against Iran. Western sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Crimea included US credit card companies in Russia subject to sanctions. There are concerns in China that SWIFT would be a vehicle to sanction Chinese banks as well. 

The second effort of Iranian strategy actively exploits policy differences in the West via international organizations and proxies, confronting and cooperating to create space for further influence. Iran encouraged Russia to create an alternative system to SWIFT for members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that China hosts. Iran, Russia and China launched their own digital currencies as well to counter the influence of the US dollar. Iran uses such cooperative relationships to defend its domestic assets and flows, deter the US from attacking those, and enlist supportive partners. Those capabilities are also used to fund previously mentioned confrontations against domestic opponents and regional adversaries in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.  

Together, these two efforts create synergistic effects. By targeting democratic financial standards-setting with an authoritarian replacement, Iran assists in the reshaping of global finance. The pivotal battle is over who sets conditions of finance that others follow. Global financial flows affect international decisions made about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. US pressure on European allies to support sanctions leveraged SWIFT’s role in maintaining international standards against countervailing European interests in trading and investing in Iran. 

The long-term economic aspect of Iran’s combined effect is crucial contested space. As Russia and more importantly, China, develop alternatives to SWIFT, Iran’s strategy is to leverage any opposition to sanctions with countervailing European interests in trade and investment with Iran. For many Europeans and others enjoying the rules of liberal capitalism, Iran is a business opportunity, not a war zone.  

So it should not be surprising when Iran’s combined effect outmaneuvers narrower western strategies of warfare based on “when deterrence fails.” Against the West’s all-domain military warfare, Iran’s persuasive compellence and defensive deterrent coercion are dimes-wide, nearly all-effects, and too complex to attract coherent media attention. These asymmetric advantages make Iran’s narrative strategy more effective.  

Iran’s Narrative Strategy 

To shed light on Iran’s narrative strategy within its overall combined effect, I followed up Seeker’s analysis with the Hamilton 2.0 disinformation tracker.[5]  This dashboard collects and presents topics from Chinese, Iranian and Russian official and state-funded media. I focused on two Iranian effects — compellence and coercion. 

Compellence and Coercion

Iranian intimidation and punishment of will, and neutralization and denial of capability, create compellence and coercion. How do these concepts of influence work in narrative warfare? They target audiences with critical thinking errors and cognitive biases. The critical thinking errors may be genuinely sloppy thinking, or shrewdly deliberate thinking. What matters more is how they influence audiences.  

To compel desired behavior, Iranian disinformation mostly uses two generic tools — selective evidence and false assumptions. These two cover most specific logical fallacies such as faulty reasoning, misuse of historical analogy, slippery slope thinking, ad hominem attack, loaded question, and so forth. Weaponizing these flaws into a psychological attack works well when combined with heuristic biases. Heuristics are mental shortcuts such as the following four A’s: availability; association; affect; and anchoring.

  • Availability: the information evokes what is readily recalled in your memory, such as a recent assassination of an Iranian physicist
  • Association: an image, word or idea reminds you of something else, such as “Israel” reminding you of the struggle by Palestinians for a homeland
  • Affect: your emotional state influences your ability to think rationally about new information, such as after seeing a video of US aircraft bombing a Muslim target
  • Anchoring: starting with an idea or circumstance and basing subsequent information on that initial position, such beginning history with the Western occupation of Iran     

To coerce desired behavior, the disinformation physically harms a target. How? A psychological attack using one-sided evidence to inflame your personal bias can physically punish your will, or deny you the mental ability to function normally. The difference between psychological and physical influence depends on the individual. This distinction is difficult to separate out, as in the neurological damage caused by emotional trauma. What matters most, however, is the effect.

Iranian disinformation uses these errors and biases over and over to shape personal or group responsibility and blame for an issue. By repeating selective information and false assumptions, a target susceptible to such errors and biases can be conditioned to internalize responsibility and externalize blame. This shaping tactic is straight from a terrorist’s playbook, one that Ajit Maan captures so well in her four-step radicalization model.[6] When that happens, compellence is all but complete. Coercion is a matter of how vulnerable that target is to the disinformation in terms of not being in control.

Iranian Disinformation

The sample disinformation below is from 2020. The hollow sub-bullets contain the type of heuristic, basic error or bias, followed by a — hyphen and the narrative. Ask yourself, Can I spot these? Which audiences do they work on? Do I have the time and patience to think this through?

For the sake of brevity here, I selected the samples from top ten Tweets and Likes for each month, and from the top two Influencers—Press TV and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The disinformation falls into two main categories: Mobilizing Commitment to Act; and Attributing Blame onto the US, Israel, NATO or the EU. 

MOBILIZING COMMITMENT TO ACT:

  • Calls for an inclusive (Shia and Sunni) government in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban 
    • availability of a recent event; false assumptionIran is inclusive
  • Calls for an apology from diplomats who referred to a photo of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at the 1943 Teheran Conference, a time of foreign occupation
    • anchoring on a time period; selective evidenceIran is regularly victimized
  • Palestinian prisoners make heroic escape from Israeli prison 
    • availability of recent event; association of Palestinians as heroes — Iranians must mobilize against Israel
  • This begins the post-American era and the deterioration of the Zionist enemy
    • association of Taliban victory with US global defeat – Iranians must mobilize against the US and Israel 
  • The Quds force is the biggest preventer of oppression in West Asia 
    • association of Quds with justice; falsehoodIranians must mobilize to establish justice
  • Iran tests new generation of missile system; no radar aircraft can escape our new radar
    • falsehoodIranians must mobilize to support of our revolutionary guards and Islamic army 
  • Yemen’s army attacks Saudi Arabia
    • selective evidenceIranians must support our fellow (usually means Shia) jihadis

ATTRIBUTING BLAME ONTO THE US, ISRAEL AND THE EU:

  • US humiliation and illegal use of force is the rule not the exception, as in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Kuwait, Somalia, the Balkans, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen 
    • selective evidence; falsehoodsthe US is to blame for all of these wars
  •  Afghanistan is a brother of our common language and culture, the killings are all America’s job 
    • selective evidence; false assumptionsIran is guardian of Persian language and culture against the US threat
  • Italian port workers refuse to load shipments to Israel against Palestinians
    • selective evidence; false assumptionsEuropeans agree with Iran’s support of Israeli-oppressed Palestinians
  • Iran has met all JCPOA obligations and US has not 
    • selective evidenceIran upholds its international obligations; the US does not
  • Top US firms spent $1b lobbying for the war in Afghanistan and made $2 t
    • selective evidence; falsehood; false assumptionun-Islamic capitalism causes wars
  • US drone attack on Kabul kills civilians 
    • selective evidence; false assumptionUS conducts illegal war
  • The EU’s irresponsible behavior and inaction in supporting the JCPOA must end
    • selective evidence and false assumptionsthe EU is to blame for not standing up to the US

Iran’s Narrative and Strategic Role

From the above examples of disinformation, we can infer the following narrative:

  • Iran is inclusive, victimized by great powers, guardian of Persian culture and Shia Islam. Iran must mobilize Shiites against US, Israel, and EU injustice and oppression.

    Note: a narrative does not have to be truthful to generate effects; it just has to be believed.

What is the role of this narrative in Iran’s combined effect strategy?

To interpret the meaning of past, current and future events for a domestic, regional and increasingly global audience. This is the persuasive compellent component (P Cp) of the rest of Iran’s combined effect (Df Dt P Cp Cr). For vulnerable individuals and groups, the narrative can not only compel behavior, it can coerce behavior.  

This role does not rest. The clerics’ narrative warfare is perpetually on. This strengthens the impact of selective evidence and faulty assumptions when combined with heuristics. Repetition can inure the target from being aware that they are taking those mental shortcuts. Consider the following tactics represented by the fourteen examples above.

  • Tactics
    • Keeping the approved memory fresh is important to leveraging availability over seeking evidence that one does not know. Hence messages about the Palestinian resistance, Israeli assassinations of Iranian physicists, diplomatic offenses committed by Westerners, and any US attack on Muslims or defeat by Muslims.
    • Selecting information that repeatedly assigns blame to Israel, the US and EU is psychologically satisfying. This strengthens the hold of association over the freedom of independent thought. Shaping an audience first with a story or image of violence committed by the above perpetrators provokes emotions.
    • This amplifies the error of affect over objective reasoning. 
    • Anchoring the attention of one’s target on any of the preceding errors as if they were complete information, can be extremely effective. Theocrats continuously invoke the Supreme Leader’s authority about the end of US, Israeli and European influence. The evokes hope in the return of the 12th imam, who is supposed to return during a period of great calamity.  

Conclusion

Iran’s combined-effects strategy blends persuasion, compellence and coercion with defense and deterrence. These effects interact synergistically. The domestic core that legitimizes theocratic rule and justifies the other effects, is persuasive compellence. That psychological component is waged as narrative warfare, which for some targets is also physically coercive. This sacred aspect of Iranian strategy contrasts with Russian and Chinese combined effects strategy, which is basically secular.

The theocracy’s ability to distort what otherwise would be a more effective national security strategy rests on the Iranian people’s acceptance of authoritative thinking and poor leadership. Fighting against such a strategy that seeks to intimidate an individual’s will and capability to reason independently is not a matter of combined arms. For any people, arming the mind with critical thinking combats narratives based on deceptive persuasion, compellence and coercion.

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we would do well to exercise our constitutional rights and freedoms to learn and apply critical thinking. Democracies need superior strategy that wins information wars not just kinetic battles.


[1] On the secularization of Iran, see Mahmoud Pargoo, Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran, Routledge, 2021. 

[2] Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Mahdī is believed to be the Mahdī, an ultimate savior of humankind and the final Imam of the Twelve Imams who will reappear with Isa (Jesus Chris) to save the world. 

[3] This claim is certainly not confined to Islam or any civil authority. The Russian Orthodox Church, suppressed for many years under Soviet rule, rejects the Roman Cath

olic Church’s claim of religious freedom as both compete for influence. For historical perspectives on territoriality, see: Robert D. Stack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History, Cambridge University Press, 1986; Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory, University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

[4] Seeker has a button, Insights, which can be selected once you select a node of interest, which I did successively for the terms–allies, economic, NATO, dependencies, and China. This line of reasoning enabled me to examine fourth, fifth and sixth orders of relationships beyond the initial visual 3-D picture. 

[5] This disinformation tracker is independently funded by 175 organizations led by the German Marshall Fund of the US and run by a bipartisan trans-Atlantic advisory council. See the dashboard here: https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/hamilton-dashboard/.

[6] See my application of Dr Maan’s model to China and Russia in Ajit Maan, ed., Dangerous Narratives: Warfare, Strategy, Statecraft, Narrative Strategies Ink., 2021, pp. 49-97.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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