US vs. Iran: A soft-power playbook

Article Highlights

  • While policymakers have been focused on the nuclear deal, Iran's soft-power activities are equally important.

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  • Iran's aggressive political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural strategies serve Tehran’s revolutionary aims.

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  • Blunting Iran's influence gives the West the best chance to normalize relations with the regime.

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While policymakers have been focused on the nuclear deal brokered in Geneva this fall, Iran's soft-power activities in the Middle East are equally important. Its aggressive political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural strategies serve Tehran's revolutionary aims. Blunting its influence gives the West the best chance to normalize relations with the regime. But how?

Recognize Iran's underlying objectives in the region.

Iran perceives itself as the rightful predominant power in the region, demanding the removal or neutralization of American, Israeli, and Western influence. Tehran hopes to position itself as the vanguard of a new, just Islamic world, the leader of the nonaligned movement, and the protector of Shi'a Muslims. More practically, Iran wants to minimize its political isolation and increase its international support.

Understand US strengths and resource constraints.

In an era of budget austerity, the US has an obvious imperative to align programs with strategic goals. This will require better integration of State, Defense, and USAID missions, similar to the counterinsurgency efforts embraced in Iraq. Programs of this nature are focused on populations rather than projects and are designed to produce specific outcomes rather than an aura of overall beneficence.
Exploit Iran's weaknesses.

Competitors always have blind spots or exaggerated threat perceptions that can be exploited, and Iran is no different. Instead of trying to alter Tehran's strategic behavior (a heavy lift), US policymakers should identify areas where Iran's vulnerabilities intersect with America's relative strengths. Exploiting political, military, and economic missteps that Iran frequently makes vis-à-vis other countries can diminish Iranian influence and reach.

Define the parameters of competition.

Among the primary areas of soft-power competition, where should the US aim to undermine Iranian activities, and where should its focus be primarily defensive? For example, America's growing advantage in the energy sector should be exploited, whereas competing for cultural and religious influence is unlikely to be as productive. Armed with these insights, the US can begin building portfolios of soft-power competitive activities to undermine Iran's strategy.
To learn more, please read Danielle Pletka and Frederick W. Kagan's latest report, "America vs. Iran: The Competition for the Future of the Middle East."


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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


    Follow Danielle Pletka on Twitter.

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