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August 6 2021


Soviet Disinformation Finds New Life in the Islamic Republic

From the tattered desk of a distant country’s diplomatic office, a loyal state official diligently disseminates falsified messages and memorandums. The agent’s sole intent: skew adversarial perceptions and maintain domestic control. The contemporary concept of disinformation campaigning — or the intentional production and promulgation of counterfeit information — originated in the 1920s, when the Soviet Union first employed dezinformatsiya tactics against its expatriate community in an attempt to discredit the defectors and subtly lure them back to their homeland. By the mid-1950s, the state had officially institutionalized its infamous propaganda apparatus by inaugurating a specialized dezinformatsiya department within the First Chief Directorate of the Soviet intelligence unit.

Nearly 30 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and these antiquated tales of disinformation feel far-fetched and faraway from our modern information age. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic — a promising protégé in the school of Soviet propaganda — has essentially copied Moscow’s well-established blueprint. Similarities of purpose corroborate this claim.

The Soviet Union’s quintessential model of informational warfare emanated from a position of financial and military weakness. Waging a war within the abstract informational realm allowed the Kremlin to avoid the costs of direct military confrontation while still sowing confusion and discord within political rivals. The Islamic Republic similarly seeks to save on monetary and militant expenditures given its relatively bleak economic environment. A steady decline in oil revenues and the cost of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic have greatly reduced the country’s fiscal space. In 2020 alone, the state fell into a trade deficit of $3.45 billion — representing a year-over-year contraction of nearly five percent. This economic depletion greatly diminishes the state’s combative capabilities and thus exponentially enhances the allure of informational warfare.
Logistically, the Soviet Union and its contemporary Iranian counterparts operate nearly identical propaganda networks of interconnected legal statutes and governing bodies.

The Soviet Union codified its censorship tactics immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the victorious Bolshevik Party implemented The Decree on the Suppression of Hostile Newspapers — a repressive mandate explicitly barring any publication from, “inciting to open resistance or disobedience” toward the newfound Communist government. Upon seizing power in 1979, the Islamic Republic likewise swiftly abolished the Iranian citizenry’s freedom of expression. The regime’s constitution adopted nearly identical verbiage by outlawing viewpoints which proved “detrimental to the foundational principles of Islam or the rights of the Republic.”

Various governing organizations rest atop these foundational legalities to contrive a complacent populace and communal cognizance. The Soviet Union’s Commissariat of Enlightenment exemplifies this clearly. Founded directly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet leaders tasked the Commissariat with revolutionizing the state’s education system along communist lines. The Commissariat thus streamlined all curriculum, banning subjects deemed “potentially subversive” in the process and replacing them with courses promoting communist ideologies.

The Islamic Republic’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution — originally titled the Cultural Revolution Headquarters at its creation in 1980 — closely mimics the Commissariat in function. Headed by the Iranian president and subservient only to the Supreme Leader himself, the Council maintains the overarching goal of constructing a purely Islamic curriculum. This has often entailed suppressing access to textbooks, disallowing liberal arts education, and expelling progressive professors. In fact, upon its founding, the Islamic Republic almost instantaneously closed all universities in a year-long ‘purge’ intended to rid the country’s educational system of westernized and progressive thought processes. These eerily similar instances of educational reform have served as integral components in preserving both the Soviet Union’s and the Islamic Republic’s propagandist regimes.

The Soviet Union additionally augmented their educational propaganda with a far-reaching disinformation association. The Glavlit, or General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press, screened all cultural materials — including artworks, literary publications, and performances — to ensure their affinity with communist values. This wider censorship campaign safeguarded the loyalist leanings of the working class.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service, or IRIB as it is colloquially referred, performs a similar service. The state-run radio and television conglomerate holds an absolute monopoly over Iranian media services, financing upwards of 100 local, national, and international media outlets. The organization’s logo alone — two graphic depictions of the Arabic word ‘no’ pointing toward the East and West — symbolizes the highly-skewed nature of this establishment.

The ostensible correlations between Iran and the Soviet Union’s disinformation infrastructure cannot be coincidental. The contemporary Iranian regime has long copied the Soviet model of propagandizing interconnected legal statutes and governing bodies.

The presented dissertation has exhaustively analyzed the Soviet Union’s historical disinformation tactics in relation to those of the current Iranian regime. In completing this task, similarities in purpose and structure have become incredibly apparent. One can easily see that the Islamic Republic still employs misinformation mechanisms of yesteryear. By creating fake Twitter accounts, suppressing dissident voices, and sending well-versed propagandists abroad, the Islamic Republic has obviously copied the blueprint of its propagandist predecessors. Seeking patterns in propaganda could therefore greatly benefit policymakers who struggle to create new strategies for age-old problems.

But for now, it seems the disinformation sector still offers those loyal state officials incredible job security — even within the modern ‘information age.’

Emilia Sullivan is a NUFDI Summer Fellow and a senior at the University of North Florida studying International Affairs and French Language.