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Daily News Analysis

Soft War vs. Soft Power

Hamid Reza Gholamzadeh

This article was first published in Mehr News, Tehran on October 14, 2015. Because of its importance, we are reproducing it here now. The author quotes extensively from the speeches of the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, highlighting some very important concepts for Islamic governance. All those striving for peace and justice in the world will find this article extremely useful and informative.

Tehran, crescent-online.net
Friday March 11, 2016, 20:48 EST

(Courtesy: Mehr News, Tehran)

In one of his latest remarks on October 12, 2015, Leader of the Islamic Revolution pointed to the notion of Soft Warfare against the country in his meeting with IRIB officials.

The idea of soft war seems to be a counterargument to Joseph Nye’s theory of Soft Power. This article tries to look at the two ideas and find how they are applied in US policies towards the Middle East. The idea of soft power and its implications in foreign policy are discussed first using Nye and other researchers’ works; and further, the idea of soft war is reviewed by going through excerpts from Ayatollah Khamenei’s speeches and remarks.

Soft Power

Defining power, Joseph Nye believes that “power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want.” (Nye, 2004) For long it was considered to be possible through coercion and military power, until the idea of Nye for dividing the concept of power into ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ emerged. According to Edward Lock “hard power rests on an actor’s capacity to get others to change their positions through either the making of threats or the proffering of incentive. In other words, hard power is the power associated with ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’. It is in this context that Nye asserts the importance of a third mechanism through which actors can gain the results that they want within politics. This third mechanism is that described by Nye as ‘attraction’. Soft power is therefore exercised through the use of attraction; the co-option of others so as to get them to want what you want.” (Lock, 2010)

Zahran and Ramos discuss that unlike hard power, resources of soft power are clearly intangible: culture, ideology, values and institutions. (Zahran & Ramos, 2010) Nye who believes that “Soft power is an important reality,” admits that soft power is not the solution and response to all problems the United States faces and hard power is also needed when necessary. (Zahran & Ramos, 2010)

“The resources that produce soft power for a country include its culture (where it is attractive to others); its values (where they are attractive and not undercut by inconsistent practices) and its policies (where they are seen as inclusive and legitimate in the eyes of others).” (Nye, 2004)

In other words,

“Nye defines soft power as the ability to make others want what you want. … Soft power which Nye also calls co-optive or indirect power, rests on the attraction a set of ideas exerts, or on the capacity to set political agendas that shape the preferences of others. Therefore, soft power is related to intangible resources like culture, ideologies and institutions (Nye, 1990: 31-5)” (Zahran & Ramos, 2010)

While emphasizing that “goals such as the promotion of democracy and human rights are better achieved by soft power,” Joseph Nye insists on the role of public diplomacy in soft power and argues that “we should invest in a public diplomacy that builds less on broadcasting and invests more in face to face contacts, education and exchanges that involve civil society. A new foundation for international understanding could focus on the young people.”

While success of soft power and public diplomacy of the United States is usually assessed through measuring popularity of the US in target countries – it was particularly done regarding Middle East countries after September 11 attacks – as mentioned above, a main use of soft power is to make US policies in target countries possible. That is why Zahran and Ramos compare Nye’s idea of soft power to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony.

“Gramsci’s influence on Nye is easy to see: hegemony, as soft power, works through consent on a set of general principles that secures the supremacy of a group. Gramscian authors would agree with Nye when he considers that a state would find less resistance in pursuing its goals if its own power is understood as legitimate by other states.”

Soft Power and Foreign Policy

As mentioned before, Joseph S. Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.” (Nye, 2004)

Parmar and Cox consider soft power as “an effective means of preserving American hegemony by legitimizing US dominance and reassuring other states that the USA will not abuse its preponderant power.” (Parmar, Cox, 2010)

Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye assert that “the goal of US foreign policy should be to prolong and preserve American preeminence as an agent for good. Achieving this goal is impossible without strong and willing allies and partners who can help the United States to determine and act on priorities.” (Armitage, Nye, 2007)

As one of the main elements of soft power, public diplomacy is considered responsible for portraying a positive image of the United States. Mark Leonard defines three dimensions for public diplomacy. “The first dimension is daily communications which involves explaining the context of domestic and foreign policy decisions. After making decisions, government officials in modern democracies usually pay a good deal of attention to what to tell the press and how to do it.

The second dimension is strategic communication in which a set of simple themes is developed, much like what occurs in a political or advertising campaign. The campaign plans symbolic events and communications over the course of a year to brand the central themes, or to advance a particular government policy.

The third dimension of public diplomacy is the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and access to media channels.” (Nye, 2004)

Henry John Hyde, Republican member of US House of Representatives at the time, wrote in an article in 2002 that the “larger purpose of our public diplomacy efforts should be to provide objective news and information, to convey an accurate and positive image of America, and to present and explain US foreign policy.” (Hyde, 2002)

Soft War

The Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei has introduced on different occasions the idea of soft war in his speeches during the last three decades. Following keywords such as soft war, public diplomacy, Islamic Awakening, Hegemony, liberal democracy and American Islam among others, excerpts from the various speeches by Ayatollah Khamenei leads us to categorizing them into three parts; first, speeches providing a definition for soft war, including its features and characteristics. Then statements regarding the goals of soft war, and further means of soft war will be discussed.

Ayatollah Khamenei defines soft war as a ‘subtle warfare’ that is more dangerous than military wars (Speech to members of IRGC, 2011); describing that the soft war is an ongoing reality, (Speech to poets, 2009) which has been the issue for the last three decades. (Speech to students, 2012) He further highlights that, compared to military wars, “awareness of the depths of this war requires more capability and more vigilance.” (Speech to members of IRGC, 2011)


Leader of the Islamic Revolution describes the strategy of soft war as creating doubts in the hearts and minds of the people (Address to members of Basij, 2009), especially when it comes to the willpower of the nations; your heart, your mind, your thoughts, are targeted to change your willpower. (Speech to students, 2012)

“The soft war is that the world of arrogance headed by America wants to do something to make us stop wanting. This can be achieved through creating “disruption in the calculation system of the other side.” (Speech in meeting with governmental official, 2014)

“The only way for [the west] is limited to a situation in which the nation and the officials would come to the conclusion that this way [of resistance against western hegemony] is not worth going any more. The enemy tries to impose such calculations into your minds; it wants us to come to the conclusion that it is not proper to stand and resist against the United States, against imperialism, against political systems that are led by different economic cartels; they want us to give up such ideas, and they have clearly mentioned it. Once they wanted us to forget about the Palestinian issue, forget about Israel, forget about global justice and about support for justice-seeking nations; forget about such things and think of yourself. This is the change in calculations. The enemy wants this.” (Speech to students, 2012)

"Distorting realities is also among the important elements of soft war." (Speech to thousands of Basijis from Qom Province, 2010)


In regard to the goals of soft war Ayatollah Khamenei explains that in psychological war or soft war one of the goals the enemy pursues is to weaken spiritual strongholds of a nation targeting faith, determination, and the main foundations of a nation and turning opportunities and strong points of a nation into threats and weak points. (Speech to members of the Assembly of Experts, 2009)

Moreover, another goal in soft war is targeting unity of a nation.

“Creating suspicion and discord among the people of a society is one of the techniques used in a soft war. They just find a pretext and foment discord among the people.”

Elections are one of the most significant pretexts for triggering discord and dispute among a nation.

“Using a pretext like elections, they simply create doubts and suspicion and line up one group of people against another. In the meantime, they force their spiteful puppets to engage in illegal actions, leaving government officials wondering who did what. This is one of their main plots. This is what they are trying to do.” (Address to members of Basij, 2009)

In the Leader’s view, through soft war, the enemy tries to impose its own ‘badly-experienced’ and ‘failed’ democracy to other countries, particularly those in the Middle East. However he criticizes the west for their double standards in this regard;

“they do not recognize the Palestinian government [Hamas-led government in Gaza] that is elected by popular vote; they cause problems for the Iraqi government which has been truly elected by the people; they fully support military coups and military coup plotters if they are [western] puppets, yet they claim democracy!” (Remarks in 18th anniversary of demise of Imam Khomeini, 2007)

Suggesting that such ideas should be implemented in correct ways to institutionalize freedom and social rights without liberalism, equality without Marxism, and order without western fascism.

“If being democratic means being populist and holding free elections within the framework of the principles of the revolution, all of you can be democrats, but if it means falling into the trap of second-rate and simulated liberal democracy, none of you should become democrats.” (Friday Prayer address (in Arabic addressing Egyptians), 2012)

Means of Soft War

Discussing the means of soft war, Ayatollah Khamenei believes that one of the most important techniques is to undermine unity, create chasm and to sow discord between Shia and Sunni by instigating religious conflicts.

“Soft war is fought through cultural means and influence, through lies, through slandering; (Address to members of Basij, 2009) and through propaganda, political work and different contacts.” (Speech in meeting with governmental official, 2014)

Soft war is fought through communication facilities that were not available 10, 15, or 30 years ago (Address to members of Basij, 2009) is based on power, hypocrisy, money, and advanced media facilities. (Speech to students and scientific elites, 2009)

“They clearly admit that they spend money to launch a radio to undermine the Islamic Republic.” (Speech to provincial security councils, 2013)

“The propaganda efforts made by the enemy in this regard are indicative of its weakness. Whenever the enemy faces an overwhelming problem in the arena of realities, it steps up its propaganda efforts. Today if one takes a look at the enemy's efforts in the vast arena of methods of propaganda - from Internet tools to audio visual means and to mouthpieces they have in different places inside and outside the country - one would see that one of the main techniques is to distort the events that happen in the country and to present the situation of the country as disappointing and in decline.” (Speech to thousands of Basijis from Qom Province, 2010)

Ayatollah Khamenei also considers the strategic importance of the Middle East region to the United States and other western powers in their soft warfare:

“Today the most important foreign challenge that we are faced with has been imposed by America. There is no doubt in this regard. The west has had plans for the Middle East since the 19th century because the Middle East region connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. The Mediterranean Sea was where colonial governments used to deploy their forces and the Indian Ocean was where their colonies were located. And the Middle East was the region that connected these two locations to one another and they could not afford to ignore it.” (Speech to government officials, 2006)

“Geographically, the Islamic Ummah is located in a very strategic spot - namely, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, North Africa, and parts of the Mediterranean region. That is an enormous area of land. Out of the 5 or 6 vital channels in the world, three are located in this region - namely, the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. These are strategic channels, and world trade depends on them. Just take a map of the world and look at it. You will see what these few channels mean for global trade and global economy. Therefore, this region is a strategic region.” (Speech to students and scientific elites, 2009)

In conclusion a historic February 3, 2012 Friday Prayers address by Ayatollah Khamenei which was delivered partly in Arabic to directly address the Egyptian protesters a year after they toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak will be shortly reviewed; in the address, Iran’s Leader describes how the soft war is exercised against their country:

“Currently, after their failure to control and suppress the people of nations, their biggest goal is to try to take control of the revolutions, infiltrate influential political parties, preserve the original structure of the overthrown corrupt regimes, limit the changes to superficial reforms, reorganize their local pawns in the countries that have carried out a revolution, bribe certain people and groups and probably assassinate them in order to thwart the revolutions or create reactionary attitudes, discourage people or keep them busy with secondary issues or with each other, fan the flames of ethnic, tribal, sectarian or partisan differences, make misleading slogans in order to change the nature of the movements, control the language of revolutionaries in a direct or indirect way, lure revolutionaries into political games and create discord through or among them and among the people, make backroom deals with certain outstanding figures by giving false promises such as financial assistance, and tens of other techniques.” (Friday Prayer address (in Arabic addressing Egyptians), 2012)

Hamid Reza Gholamzadeh has done his MA in North American Studies and his focus has been on US policies towards the Middle East. He also contributes to Mehr News as a columnist.

This article was first published in Mehr News, Tehran on October 14, 2015. It is reproduced through its courtesy.

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