A mural on the outside wall of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem pays tribute two women with Persian roots, Kurdish Iranian Mahsa Amini and Israeli of Iranian descent Shirel Haim Pour.

Israel's Military Hopes to Speak Directly to Iranians to Stop a War

Thursday, 06/06/2024

Israel's latest strategy to take on its regional rival Iran is not with a weapon, but a new tool in its soft power arsenal which aims to bridge relations between the two nations locked in escalating tensions.

It may be surprising, but the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has rolled out a Persian-language channel on various social media apps, highlighting the significance it sees on the relationship between social media and diplomacy. 

Using the channel, the IDF speaks directly to the people of Iran and circumvents the censorship of the Iranian regime, gaining access to millions of Iranians through their social media page ‘IDF Farsi,’ which appears on Twitter, Instagram and Telegram.

“We wanted to build a bridge to the Iranian people,” said Beni Sabti, the mastermind behind IDF Farsi. 

Sabti, an Israeli of Iranian origin, used to serve as a Persian spokesperson for the Israeli government on Iranian issues. He is also with the Iran program at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) think-tank.

He said it may seem strange to think the Israeli army is providing the outreach, but it’s a system he believes will lead to greater understanding, more dialogue and less wars.

“We only wanted to talk to them [Iranians], and they only wanted to talk to us [Israelis]. Because we knew that these small steps will bring the big step to prevent war….it’s with a lot of emotion and from the heart,” said Sabti.

The social media account also communicates in Persian proverbs and poetic terms by making reference to great Persian poets like Hafez and Saadi.

The messaging is one of unity and kinship between Israelis and Iranians, recognizing a distinction between the people and Iran’s authoritarian government, which has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the monarchy and ushered in a clerical regime. Iran is the only country in the world where its government officially denies the Holocaust.

On the platform X, IDF Farsi recently shared a video clip with Iranian-American artist Hooman Khalili who came to Israel to paint a series of murals, celebrating the historic ties between Iran and the Jewish peoples, and raise awareness on the oppression of women and men inside the Islamic Republic. 

Khalili, along with an Israeli-Iranian solider from IDF Farsi, unveiled in a video posted to social media, a mural in Israel dedicated to Iranian dissident rapper Toomaj, who has been sentenced to death for his lyrics critical of the regime. IDF Farsi soldiers are often seen in video clips with Iranian dissidents from around the world on their page. 

In September 2023, IDF Farsi posted a powerful video honoring Mahsa Jina Amini - marking the one year anniversary of her death. Amini died while under the custody of the so-called morality police for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly, showing too much hair. Her death sparked massive demonstrations in Iran and around the world and was the catalyst for the Women, Life, Freedom movement. 

The video uses a montage of anti-government protest videos and photos, asking “what is the price of freedom?"

Communicating information about the Iranian regime’s financing of its proxy terror groups is another message IDF Farsi conveys.

“We show them how, for example, how the regime wastes their money for Hezbollah, or for budgeting Hamas,” said Sabti.

Sabti was born in Tehran seven years before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He was 15 years old when he and his family escaped persecution in Iran, fleeing on foot and eventually seeking refuge in Israel in 1987.

He served in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps, and as a researcher, mostly in projects related to Iranian culture, influence and media. Sabti is also with the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) think-tank.

"We talk to them [Iranians] directly, above the head of the regime,” said Sabti.

Sabti told Iran International in an interview in Tel Aviv that the message is also clear to the authoritarian powers in Iran.

"We see you. We know a lot about you. We know how you act, your methods,” said Sabti.

“From time to time, Israel reveals some information that no one knows about. Suddenly we discover that there are some regime terrorists here and there, and they want to harm the Jews,” said Sabti

Iranian public opinion matters to Israel

With tens of thousands of followers, and engagement on both sides, it appears IDF Farsi has had impact and influence. 

Israel, "cares about Iranian public opinion,” said Iran analyst, journalist and author Arash Azizi.

"Israel has tried to, probably with some degree of success. Actually, it has tried to influence public opinion in Iran,” said Azizi.

“Iran and Israel are in an indirect war. And the reason that a lot of countries do focus on Iran is that…the average Iranian, does not like the government and does not think like their government. So that's why they try to sort of, target them,” added Azizi.

The Netherlands-based Gamaan institute conducted an opinion survey in 2023 finding that more than 80 percent of 158,000 respondents in Iran reject the Islamic Republic and prefer a democratic government.

Azizi said the Persian language page of the US State department, for example, is failing at outreach.

“The State Department of the United States is not doing so well. You know, if I'll start with something just very basic, the very [Persian] script that they use, it's so outdated,” he said.

The European Union has an Arabic spokesperson but nothing in Persian.

“It’s a lot of resource…it's like a few hundred thousand dollars a year. So not every country will want to spend…But I think countries increasingly realize that they need to do it,” said Azizi.

While he applauds IDF Farsi’s creativity and outreach, he said how much weight the Israeli’s government's message carries to the Iranian public, is a separate issue.

“I think just purely looking at it from as an analyst. Basically they've [Israel] been able to, reach an audience in Iran. They seem to be pretty creative. They try to celebrate Iranians, you know, for example, they do videos for Nowruz and Yalda” said Azizi.

The question is, according to Azizi, is how effective would IDF Farsi’s messaging be if a full out war did take place between the two nations?

“The messaging would be much more important, but also more limited. I mean, if you ran missiles in another country, you know, what kind of messages you put on them would perhaps be of less importance in some ways. Right? So I think it's a tricky, it's a tricky situation,” said Azizi.

Social media to foster conversation despite state control

Social media expert and founder of mediatedreality.com Jesse Miller said the idea of message sharing between so-called adversarial states is not new, it’s just taken on a new form with the online world.

“If we go back in time and we think about the segregation of Germany with the Berlin Wall in Eastern versus West Germany. What we did see was messaging and news of the day being shared across the wall. So we would hear these stories of individuals on the West side, you know, taking a newspaper and cutting it so the article could be then affixed to a brick or a rock and thrown over, the wall in the middle of the night,” said Miller.

Miller pointed to a more recent example in North Korea where he said the WeChat app is increasingly being used to contact China and South Korea, to avoid surveillance from North Korean authorities.

The intent of the platform is what counts, said Miller.

“Sometimes the intent is very benign. It's just information that exists on the internet. Other times it's targeted for the purpose of making people more aware,” said Miller.

Miller said IDF Farsi “is just very targeted with specific language and from a state where potentially, you know, the sworn enemy piece turns into maybe we can just learn more about each other by using a platform where you're not necessarily having to navigate whether state can control or not.”

When it comes to opening up conversations to directly communicate to Iranians in their own language, IDF Farsi is using a platform like Twitter in a healthy way, according to Miller. 

“To see Israel use a platform like Twitter to not only directly communicate to individuals who are speaking Farsi, but also communicate in a very healthy way. Some of the content that kind of bridges the gap there is positive when it comes to what we want to see for addressing issues when it comes to conflict,” said Miller.

More News