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December 9, 2019 7:02 am

The WhatsApp Crisis: Cracks in Iran’s Soft Power Strategy

avatar by Shay Attias


Lebanese citizens protest in Beirut on Nov. 10, 2019. Photo: Freimut Bahlo via Wikimedia Commons.

The “WhatsApp crisis” in Lebanon revealed a crack in Iran’s grand diplomatic strategy of using its proxies to push ideological soft power concurrently with hard power. Since 1979, Tehran has been trying to brand itself as the epicenter of the Islamic Revolution. That notion is being challenged — not by Lebanese tanks and Iraqi bullets, but by citizens armed with smartphones.

No matter what Iran might want, the people of the Middle East yearn to be connected to the world, and their access to social media allows them to make contact. Their smartphones provide an excellent window through which Western diplomacy can reach previously inaccessible populations.

Social media cannot create political change all by itself, but it can generate powerful sparks.

The WhatsApp messaging service has passed 1.5 billion users worldwide. For citizens of countries like Lebanon and Iraq, WhatsApp enables them to be connected to the rest of the planet at almost zero cost.

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Ousted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a career-ending mistake when he attempted to tax WhatsApp usage as a means of compensating for the decline in usage of the national cellular companies. This attack on citizens’ connection to the world generated massive protests in Tripoli, Beirut, and Baghdad as well.

The initial demonstrations, which erupted solely to protest the proposed WhatsApp tax, evolved quickly into a forum for the expression of resentment toward Iran’s influence in protests in both Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran was clearly unnerved by this. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ shadowy Quds Force, was quickly dispatched to shut down the protests. Immediately after the first big protests in Iraq were launched, he flew uninvited by helicopter to the Iraqi Green Zone. That area is reserved solely for Iraqi government offices, and Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel-Mahdi and several high-ranking Iraqi security officials were surprised by his arrival.

The latest wave of protests across the region may not lead to real political change, but it reveals cracks in Iran’s influence in countries it controls by proxy.

Today’s protests in Lebanon are much different from those of 2005. The protests of that era were driven by fury over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (father of Saad) and were directed against the Syrian regime.

In today’s protests, when Lebanese and Iraqis say “no more,” they are referring to Iran. It’s not only about Syria anymore.

Iran still holds strong influence among its proxies’ governments and militias, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, and the Iraqi Mobilization Forces (PMF). But the people under the control of those proxies are beginning to chafe. This is why Hezbollah is worried. At first, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, claimed the organization “stands for the protesters” and “expresses the pain of the people” — but supporters of Iran and Hezbollah are now taking the streets of Beirut back from the protesters while waving the armed movement’s yellow flags.

The more violence is committed against the protesters, the more likely it is that this “digital spring” will become a cold winter. As Nasrallah put it, “This chaos will lead to security anarchy.”

In Iraq, the incessant siphoning of public funds to pro-Iranian militias has brought a strong anti-Iranian sentiment to the fore among Iraqis who are tired of Tehran interfering in their domestic issues. Not long ago, Iraqi protesters burned Iranian flags in front of Iran’s consulate in Karbala. Iraqi army snipers killed 150 protesters in October by shooting at their heads, and Iran is being blamed for those deaths. The protests have also led top Iraqi officials to step down.

Whether meaningful political change will result from the protests remains to be seen, but the seed of change has been planted. Iran will continue to do everything it can to stay upright during this wave of protests. It is as focused as ever on its ultimate goal‏ֹ: to become the dominant military superpower in the region.

Shay Attias was the founding head (2009-13) of the Public Diplomacy Department at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Bar-Ilan University, where he is a lecturer at the Communications School.

A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.

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