After last summer’s disputed presidential election, Iran’s government relied largely on brute force — beatings, arrests and show trials — to stifle the country’s embattled opposition movement.
Now, stung by the force and persistence of the protests, the government appears to be starting a far more ambitious effort to discredit its opponents and re-educate Iran’s mostly young and restive population. In recent weeks, the government has announced a variety of new ideological offensives.
It is implanting 6,000 Basij militia centers in elementary schools across Iran to promote the ideals of the Islamic Revolution and it has created a new police unit to sweep the Internet for dissident voices. A company affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards acquired a majority share in the nation’s telecommunications monopoly this year, giving the Guards de facto control of Iran’s land-lines, Internet providers and two cell phone companies. And in the spring, the Revolutionary Guards plan to open a news agency with print, photo and television elements.
The government calls it “soft war,” and Iran’s leaders often seem to take it more seriously than a real military confrontation. It is rooted in an old accusation: that Iran’s domestic ills are the result of Western cultural subversion and call for an equally vigorous response. The extent of the new campaign underscores just how badly Iran’s clerical and military elite were shaken by the protests, which set off the worst internal dissent since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been using the phrase “soft war” regularly since September, when he warned a group of artists and teachers that they were living in an “atmosphere of sedition” in which all cultural phenomena must be seen in the context of a vast battle between Iran and the West. He and other officials have since invoked the phrase in describing new efforts to re-Islamize the educational system, purge secular influences and professors, and purify the media of subversive ideas.
The new emphasis on cultural warfare may also reflect the rising influence of the Revolutionary Guards, whose leader, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has long been one of the main proponents of a “soft war” strategy, analysts say.