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Disputing the narrative of the general's assassination

Iran failed miserably in its attempt to steer the narrative after the assassination of its top general. Are autocracies not winning the information battle after all?

Qasem Soleimani was no ordinary general. In Iran, he was portrayed as the ultimate guardian of the nation, the leader in the fight against the loathed Islamic State.

Foto: Ebrahim Noroozi / AP / NTB

Authoritarian regimes leverage digital advancements to suppress and manipulate their populations. They are often accused of disinforming and manipulating debates in Western democracies. Yet, when Iran's propagandists were handed a golden opportunity by a trigger-happy Trump, they fell flat on their face. What have we misunderstood about the information war?

"There is a widespread belief that authoritarian states excel in the realm of communication, while democracies are vulnerable. However, this perspective is incomplete because authoritarian regimes engage in more than just spreading disinformation; they too have specific messages to convey about their identity and accomplishments," explains NUPI research professor Kjetil Selvik.

Selvik, along with former NUPI researcher Banafsheh Ranji, now a postdoctoral researcher at NTNU, recently published an article in the influential journal International Affairs, where they discuss the communication vulnerabilities of authoritarian states. Selvik and Ranji analyse the media discourse on two of the leading Persian-language satellite channels headquartered outside Iran, namely BBC Persian and Iran International, following a dramatic event on January 3, 2020.

Assassination of the general

The events in Baghdad hit the news like bombshell or, more aptly, a missile: a U.S. drone strike killed ten individuals, including one of the leaders of the Shia militias in Iraq. But he was not the primary target. Middle East experts held their breath because the attack also claimed the life of Iran’s most important military figure, the charismatic commander Qasem Soleimani.

Soleimani was no ordinary general. For two decades, he had been at the helm of Iran's notorious Quds Force. In Iran, he was portrayed as the ultimate guardian of the nation, the leader in the fight against the loathed Islamic State. A figure renowned far beyond the country's borders, he epitomized Iran’s influence in neighbouring countries.

"Soleimani was undeniably a master strategist who had a vast network, intimately acquainted with the key players in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan," Selvik recounts.

The importance of the narrative

Soleimani’s killing triggered global controversy. Donald Trump was widely criticised for ordering an unnecessary aggressive hit that very well could spark a war.

"From a communication perspective, one might have anticipated that this would be a trump card for the Iranian regime. With global sympathy stemming from the attack, they should have been able to score significant points in the narrative battle with the US."

The narrative of American bullying on the world stage holds immense importance for Iran and its value-driven foreign policy, Selvik explains. According to the Iranian narrative, the US and the West subjugate other nations, while Iran pays a hefty price to defend its allies and resist the US and Israel, perceived as acting with impunity. Soleimani's assassination seemed to vindicate this narrative.

"However, Iran utterly failed in gaining sympathy in the Persian-language media channels we analysed. This hints that authoritarian regimes may have more pronounced communication vulnerabilities than the existing literature suggests," says the NUPI researcher.

So, where did Iran go wrong?

A battle on two fronts

In contrast to diasporas from democratic states who frequently express positive sentiments about their country of origin, diasporas from autocratic states have often left for a reason. Many within the Iranian diaspora maintain a lukewarm, if not openly critical stance towards the regime. 

"Instead of witnessing a unified national response in a crisis, Iran found itself entangled in a dual-front struggle over narrative control. The narrative was being contested not only by the US but also by the Iranian diaspora," Selvik explains.

Commentators in the diaspora-dominated media channels dismantled the regime's portrayal of Soleimani:

Was he truly a defender of the Iranian people or primarily an instrument of the Iranian regime? Was he a symbol of the fight against ISIS or of the government's oppression of its population? Did the large crowds attending his funerals and memorial services necessarily indicate widespread support? Anti-regime protesters took to the streets in large numbers as well. OK, Soleimani had his supporters, but did his critics have the opportunity to voice their points of view? 

"Another disadvantage with a strained diaspora relationship is that rival states can exploit these divisions to weaken their adversary and advance their own agenda," observes Kjetil Selvik.

It is reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, pursued precisely this strategy by funding the TV channel Iran International. While Saudi Arabia cannot be held accountable for the viewpoints and statements of commentators, substantial funding and professionally produced broadcasting attracted both viewers and renowned Iranian journalists.

"When the two rivals agreed to restore diplomatic relations in the spring of 2023, one of Iran's demands was that Saudi Arabia should rein in Iran International."

Bad to worse

2020 began on a bleak note for Iran. Qasem Soleimani met his demise on January 3, and the days that ensued would only amplify the regime’s challenges. 

The day after the assassination, Donald Trump threatened to attack 52 targets in Iran, including cultural heritage sites, should Iran retaliate.

On January 7, a memorial for Soleimani in the Iranian city of Kerman resulted in stampede killing at least 56 people.

The following day, an even more catastrophic event unfolded.

Despite Trump's warnings, Iran launched a retaliatory strike on January 8, targeting a military base in Iraq housing US (as well as Norwegian) soldiers.

A few hours later, a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport, resulting in the loss of 176 lives.

Iran denied any involvement in the plane crash. However, videos circulating on social media and aired on the diaspora TV channel Iran International showed that the plane had been struck by a missile. All evidence pointed to a hasty trigger pull by Iran's anxious defence apparatus.

Autocracy meets crisis communication

On January 11, 2020, after three days of denial, Iran admitted that their air defence had indeed shot down the passenger plane.

"This was the ultimate blow to Iran's efforts to control the narrative. First, they lied, then they denied, ultimately, they had to admit deceit. The regime tried to sell a narrative where hostile states posed a threat to the nation, only to reveal that the true perpetrators were themselves," Selvik reflects.

He argues that a penchant for secrecy is a characteristic trait of autocracies.

"This is how authoritarian states typically respond to crises because they are accustomed to hiding information. Government officials are too afraid to admit responsibility for any wrongdoing, but in the end, it would have been far more effective to acknowledge the mistake from the outset. This is basic crisis communication."

Parallels beyond Iran

Coincidentally, the Iranian air force shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane. Can the lesson from one autocracy's information failure guide us in handling another autocracy's attack on Ukraine?

"Similar to the situation with Iran, there is a growing number of Russian exiles who harbour strong resentment toward their homeland. Many have worked in Russian media and continue to generate and disseminate news in Russian from abroad," Selvik notes.

He is eager to investigate whether Iran's communication vulnerabilities extend to other autocracies.

"I suspect there are some parallels. Putin's narrative faces significant resistance beyond Russia's borders. The question is to what extent these alternative narratives influence internal discussions within Russia. A crucial aspect of the Persian-language satellite channels we have examined is their considerable viewership within Iran," concludes Selvik.


  • The Middle East and North Africa
  • Conflict
  • Governance

Messaging Soleimani's killing: the communication vulnerabilities of authoritarian states

  • Article by Kjetil Selvik (NUPI) and Banafsheh Ranji (NTNU)
  • Published in International Affairs, September 2023
  • The capacity of authoritarian states to manipulate narratives and undermine the authority of western democracies is increasingly emphasized in International Relations research. 
  • Far less scrutiny has been paid to the ways in which the media environment creates communication vulnerabilities for these same repressive states. 
  • Selvik and Ranji address this research gap through a case-study of Persian-language commentary on the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani—a crescendo in the conflict between Iran and the United States. 
  • The researchers examine how commentators on the two popular satellite channels interpreted Soleimani's killing and subsequent developments, and specifically, whether they rallied around the Iranian flag. 
  • Employing qualitative media content analysis, the article reveals that the Islamic Republic did not benefit from a significant surge in patriotism among Iranian commentators; in fact, some openly applauded the attack. 
  • It was only when President Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites that the commentators rallied around the flag. 
  • Iran faced a two-front narrative battle as communication attacks from within the national community intensified the information war with the US. 
  • The article concludes that authoritarian states are at a disadvantage when they require communication strategies beyond disinformation and distortion.
  • Read the article here (open access): Messaging Soleimani's killing: the communication vulnerabilities of authoritarian states