Propaganda and Perception: New Tactics for Iran and Its Allies?

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

AFP Photo: Mazen Akl

The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the Americans in January has brought a change in tactics for Iran and its proxies. Tehran’s allied militias have mounted fewer attacks and they have been on a smaller scale (and yes, that includes the harassment of US navy vessels in the Gulf), but they have been hyping them up more. Indeed, even the launch of a supposed “military satellite” earlier this month still needs to be evaluated for whether it is a real game changer or yet more hype. For in truth, Iran’s bark now is worse than its bite.

When Israel used drones to kill two Hezbollah operatives in Syria last summer for plotting a drone attack of their own, Hezbollah responded by firing guided anti-tank missiles across the Lebanon-Israel border. After the attack, the Israelis conducted what looked like an evacuation. In fact, the “evacuees” were mannequins. Hezbollah – unaware that the “dead” and “wounded” were plastic dummies – immediately celebrated. When Israel showed that none of its soldiers had been harmed, Hezbollah insisted the Jewish state was lying.

Similarly, after America killed militia tsar Soleimani, Iran’s retaliation was to fling a dozen missiles on Iraqi bases hosting both Iraqi and American troops. Washington said the attack produced no casualties, apart from some dozens of cases of non-fatal concussion; Tehran insisted hundreds of American troops had been killed or wounded.

Israel is still conducting air raids on Iranian targets in Syria and the occasional one in Iraq. The Imam Ali base on the Syria-Iraq border, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps recruits, trains and houses militia fighters and stores arms caches, has taken a particular pounding from the Israeli air force.

Yet Iran has not worked out a response to this relentless onslaught. The last Israeli attack on April 15 targeted Mustafa Mughniyah, son of Imad Mughniyah, one of the founders of Hezbollah. The Israelis had killed Mughniyah senior in 2008 and another son, Jihad, in 2015, but Mustafa survived.

A few days after the latest attack against Mustafa Mughniyah, three holes were discovered in the fence erected by Israel along the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah hyped it up as retaliation for the attack on Mughniyah, flooding the internet with pictures of the damaged fence and claiming that this proved it could sneak into Israeli territory at will. But the photos were less than convincing; the holes in the fence were hardly big enough for a person to squeeze through, let alone one carrying arms and equipment.

All this points to a new pattern in Tehran’s response to attacks by Israel and the US – one that suggests Iran is more interested in photo ops and spin than in real action. This is a complete reversal of past practice, when Iran and Hezbollah would act secretively, rarely taking credit for the harm they inflicted.

They never claimed responsibility for the Beirut bombings in 1983 of the US embassy and US Marine barracks, even though they were masterminded by Hezbollah founder Imad Mughniyah. This year, on the 37th anniversary of the embassy bombing on April 18, Hezbollah tweeted images of the shattered building next to pictures of Mughniyah, with the hashtag “Remember to repeat” in Arabic.

The reason behind this switch from actual attacks to propaganda is puzzling. It is possible that Israel’s military strategy of incapacitating a hostile regime by destroying its civilian infrastructure – known as the Dahyeh Doctrine – has undermined Iran’s prowess. Named after the southern Beirut suburb that served as Hezbollah’s headquarters during Lebanon’s civil war, the Dahyeh Doctrine marked a shift in Israeli policy to striking Hezbollah targets with surgical precision but sparing Hezbollah residential neighborhoods. In 2006, Israel razed Dahyeh. Since then, Hezbollah has thought twice before escalating war with Israel.

Similarly, American generals tried to erase the distinction between Iran and its proxies when the commander of Centcom, Jim Mattis (who would later be one of President Donald Trump’s secretaries of defense), requested authorization to strike inside Iran at the masterminds behind attacks on US troops in Iraq.

Desperate for a deal with Iran that he had hoped would cement his legacy, then President Barack Obama refused to authorize attacks inside Iran. Trump had no such compunction and approved the killing of Soleimani. It was an unprecedented move and showed that for the US, as for Israel, Iran and its acolytes are one and the same.

With calm now spreading throughout the region, all that remains of Iran’s much-vaunted prowess is propaganda. Thus, three holes in a fence on the Israeli border are transformed into evidence of a daring operation and a missile attack on US troops in Iraq is declared a game-changer when it is nothing of the kind.

During the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Egypt’s state-run radio broadcast that the national army had reached the outskirts of Jerusalem. A few days later, the truth emerged: Israel had decimated Egyptian fighter jets while they were still on the runway and went on to finish off the Egyptian military.

It now appears that Iran and its militias have embraced the old tradition that in war, perception is more important than reality.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.