Among the hundreds of pages that Facebook has removed in its latest crackdown on political influence campaigns, there are at least two which were set up by Iran in order to promote Scottish independence and foment other forms of internal divisions within the UK: “Free Scotland 2014”, and “The British Left” – both dating back at least to 2014, to before the independence referendum.
Presumably this is not because they think independence would be good for the Scottish people. At the very least, it would be because in their estimation, the breakup of the UK would be catastrophic for the country’s standing in the world, and its ability to defend its interests and the interests of its people abroad.
And, of course, there is also probably a lot of historical spite going into it, from that time in 1953 when Winston Churchill orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Tehran.
Should anyone be surprised that this has been happening though? In the wake of Russia’s brazen campaign to sway the US presidential elections in 2016, and their subsequent attempts to do the same throughout Europe, these kinds of actions must be understood as a new norm of international geopolitical conduct.
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Nor are we in the West merely passive victims of this new trend. Regime-change has been a powerful tool of America’s informal empire since WW2, and fomenting local political divisions in order to further the political aims of external powers has been an approach perfected long before, in the 18th and 19th Century by the British and other European empires.
It would also be surprising to find that it was not the West who first pioneered the use of digital means to pursue these tactics.
That is a huge part of the reason for why Russia, Iran, China, and virtually any country outside the sphere of influence of the United States have tried to cordon off their internet and their internal flows of information from the mainstream internet, to the best of their abilities – with varying degrees of success.
Iran is just as willing to follow the Russian playbook toward the same ends, even though so far they have been rather less able to effect change in their own interestsDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Destabilizing Western discourse
But make no mistake about this. Russia is certainly winning on this particular battlefield at this moment in time, especially when it comes to their capacity to destabilize Western political discourse and the local, democratic political processes.
And Iran is just as willing to follow the Russian playbook toward the same ends, even though so far they have been rather less able to effect change in their own interests.
For its part, China has been, and continues to use the same technological means for their rather different political ends: they are in fact favourable to political stability in the West, but will happily plunder the West and the entire rest of the world for scientific, technological and industrial knowledge and techniques. But again, this is just the normal course of geopolitics in the new world of digital information flows.
We must understand that of course Iran would seek to support internal divisions in the UK, including, the golden prize, Scottish independence. So would Russia. It is not by coincidence that Alex Salmond, the SNP’s former leader, and the foremost proponent of Scottish independence both in 2014 and now, has made such good friends with the Iranian regime and with the Russian regime respectively.
The Foreign Office during the Empire used to call such tactics “imperial policy”. In their current digital form, and along Soviet-style disinformation campaigns, the Kremlin today calls this “asymmetric warfare”, or alternatively “hybrid warfare”.
But any lover of peace must understand that countries like Russia, Iran, and potentially others, do think of themselves as being at war with us.
And if people who think of themselves as being at war with you support certain policies, such as Scottish independence, Catalan secessionism, right-wing nationalism, or Brexit, you might want to stop and ask yourself why they do this. Or indeed, why they then give you a platform on their state propaganda channels.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.