Iranian and Russian Influence Wars in the US: Targeting African Americans

13th March 2019

Iran and Russia continue to face internal challenges in light of sanctions imposed by the international community, in the case of Iran, in response to ongoing nuclear issues, and support of terrorist organizations including Hezbollah and, in relation to Russia, incursions into the territory of neighbouring states. We are familiar with Russia’s influence operations in the context of the 2016 US presidential elections. Less well known are the parallel campaigns conducted by Iran.

Both Iran and Russia have a long-established practice of  employing the motifs of religious, cultural and “third world” political motifs in order to appeal to and garner support from a specific demographic: African Americans. This constituency has been the subject of various targeted methods which have been deployed by both nations in the United States. Messages have been carefully crafted with an African American audience in mind, as part of a diverse and targeted effort to manipulate, coerce and ultimately to create a sympathetic audience within urban Black America.

As with Russia, the focus of Iranian intelligence operations has been America’s complicated history in race relations. Iran’s efforts amount to a repackaging of a range of familiar populist motifs, which it has combined with an evocation of an imagined era of Islamic grandeur, embodying religious pluralism, tolerance, openness and progressive values, void of race issues. This vision is held up as a counterpoint to the struggle of many African Americans in the U.S..

Russian communications draw on a long tradition of Cold War era propaganda. As far back as the 1930s, the USSR painted itself as a bastion of racial equality, and invited various African and African American artists, including the poet, Langston Hughes to visit the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, at the height of Communist outreach to African American communities, Nikita Khrushchev declared the opening of Russian Peoples’ Friendship University, which within a few years would be renamed as Patrice Lumumba University, in honor of the first prime minister of the African nation of Zaire: an open and staunch critic of the West who was assassinated in 1961. Students from Africa and Latin America – fertile ground for Soviet propaganda – were awarded full scholarships and were provided generous stipends and airfares from their place of birth. The Soviet Union was selling a brand and a message, and sympathetic ears were receptive to what they had to say.

Less visibly, the Iranian regime has long been playing a similar game. It has engaged in a quiet and steady “urban” foreign policy effort that has focused on minority communities in the U.S.. Iran has employed techniques of soft power engagement to target and recruit individuals for their cause that focus on racial and emotional pressure points. It is not yet clear what the current process of public outreach to marginalized communities will produce. However, the efforts by the Iranian government to engage with communities of color in the U.S. has a history which stretches back to the Iranian revolution.

During the Iranian hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979, hostage takers declared a unified stance with “oppressed minorities” including African Americans. They immediately released all African American and female hostages in an attempt to use internal U.S. race relations as a wedge issue to help the new Iranian government connect with minority communities globally.

In 1984, the Iranian government issued a postage stamp of El Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X) in a sign of solidarity with the universal day of struggle against racism and discrimination.

In the past few years, Ayatollah Khamenei, the second and current Supreme Leader of Iran has published a number of social media messages including tweets for “oppressed minorities,” including high profile messages of support for Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. In tweets this year, Khamenei also expressed his solidarity with protesters in New York, Baltimore, and Missouri, using the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter on his official account:

 “It’s ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes against US blacks continue to occur. #BlackLivesMatter

“Jesus endured sufferings to oppose tyrants who had put humans in hell in this world & the hereafter while he backed the oppressed. #Ferguson 

Earlier this year, an African American convert Marzieh Hashemi – born in New Orleans, Louisiana under the name Melanie Franklin – was arrested as a material witness in an undisclosed investigation. She was later released. Hashemi is a dual Iranian-American citizen who works for the Iranian English language station, Press TV, and has been a vocal and staunch critic of US foreign policy issues and and on matters of race and economics: themes that resonate in many African American communities.

In addition, Iran has hosted an annual “New Horizons conference” which is now in its fourth year. Past conferences have focused on race relations and police brutality cases in the U.S. In October of 2016, the conference convened over 20 American activists, scholars, and intellectuals to address the issue of police brutality in the U.S. The timing was not accidental. 

In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement began as a local response to concerns over deaths during arrests. A number of social movements, nation-states, and in some cases extremist organizations have sought to capitalize on this social critique movement in order to recruit sympathizers to their causes. Those in attendance in Tehran were members of the Nation of Islam, prominent activists on race relations, and notable American poets. Scholars and intellectuals from the larger developing world who have sought to internationalize the plight of the victims and the conditions of violence in the U.S were also in attendance. In preparing to attend the conference, Melissa Dargan—the mother of Kwanza Jamal Beatty, 23, who was shot dead in Newport News, Virginia in July 2015—toldThe Telegraph in the United Kingdom:

“I’m interested in coming to the conference. I want to bring awareness. It’s just to bring awareness to the world about what’s going on in America. This is an epidemic and cops are not getting prosecuted.”

By organizing these conferences and similar events, the Iranian government has attempted to place itself at the centre of current domestic policy debates on the issues that affect  urban communities in the U.S.. According to the organizers, the object of these conferences is the establishing of “a relationship based on culture, diplomacy and revolution.” 

It is not easy to discern the precise aim of Iran in engaging with African American communities. It is possible that Tehran sincerely seeks to aid communities of color in the U.S. who are affected by a spectrum of challenges. In relation to outreach to Black Muslim communities, Iran may be concerned to address Saudi-backed religious and ideological influence.  However, a more plausible explanation is that these initiatives are intended as a means to subvert and challenge American democratic principles.

Time will tell whether any of these overtures to African Americans will resonate to any significant extent. However, as with Russia, Iranian attempts to exploit the grievances of a large segment of the US population represents an important aspect of tradecraft, and a component of its foreign policy.