New report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy lays out Iran’s playbook for interfering in the United States and other democracies.

Contact: Kayla Goodson, press@securingdemocracy.org

Washington, D.C.– The Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) at the German Marshall Fund of the United States today released one of the first comprehensive discussions of the Iranian regime’s efforts to undermine democracyIran’s Authoritarian Playbook: The Tactics, Doctrine, and Objectives Behind Iran’s Influence Operations.

Iran’s attempts to interfere in U.S. democratic institutions and processes have been on the rise during the 2020 election cycle: Iranian hackers have gone so far as to attempt to hack the Trump campaign, and Iranian information operations have spread disinformation and anti-U.S. content. In this new report, ASD’s Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai examines the methods the regime is using to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections, and in democracy more broadly. According to Tabatabai, some of Iran’s tools and the tactics resemble those employed by both Russia and China—and both Beijing and Moscow have lent Tehran a hand in developing some of its capabilities. But Iran is not as sophisticated as Russia and China, and there are key differences in how Tehran deploys these tools.

The report outlines Iranian objectives and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s tactics, which include:

  • Cyberattacks: Iran’s cyber activities include those that can be characterized as traditional intelligence and military operations, as well as malign activities designed to undermine democracy which fall outside the realm of broadly accepted intelligence and military practice.
  • Information Manipulation: Iran’s information manipulation campaigns increasingly weave together multiple themes—such as fomenting internal division in the United States and criticizing U.S. foreign policy—to create more intricate narratives that can appeal to several audiences.
  • Malign Finance: Iran’s illicit financial activities appear to be mostly focused on undercutting sanctions, funding the regime’s activities in the region, and, to a lesser extent, supporting information manipulation activities aimed at the West.

“Iran is becoming a significant authoritarian actor challenging democracy in the United States and Europe,” said author Ariane Tabatabai, an expert in Iranian affairs. “Even though its capabilities are more limited than those of Russia or China, it is a determined actor that is increasingly active in this space. We need to understand what, how, and why Iran is attempting to interfere, so we can work with our allies to develop policies that will deter it from carrying out even bolder operations against our democracy.”

Tabatabai also provides comprehensive policy recommendations to address gaps in the United States’ ability to deter and defend against these efforts. Among the report’s original recommendations are:

  • Contextualize and depoliticize Iran’s authoritarian efforts to undermine democracy.
  • Do not respond to authoritarian efforts in kind. 
  • Adopt clear and coherent policies and expose the flaws in Iran’s narrative.
  • Develop cross-sector cooperation and information sharing.
  • Build resilience to disinformation in democratic societies.

Iran’s Authoritarian Playbook can be accessed here: https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/irans-authoritarian-playbook/  

The video summary can be accessed here: https://twitter.com/SecureDemocracy/status/1306581484971589634?s=20

Reporters interested in a briefing or interview should reach out to Kayla Goodson at press@securingdemocracy.org.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.