The Signal-to-Noise War

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A "signal-to-noise" ratio compares the power of a transmitted signal to that of the accompanying background noise.  In the war of words between Israel and Iran the noise-to-signal ratio is so high that it is an almost overwhelming task to decipher what's going on.

In international conflicts, the lines between strategic communication, propaganda, and information warfare are never bright.  In this conflict, they are especially murky.  Almost daily we hear Iran threatening to exterminate Israel; we hear Israeli and Western politicians and analysts debate the how and when of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.  Multiple messages are simultaneously transmitted to multiple recipients, some obvious, others not.

On the surface, Israel is signaling to the West, the Gulf, and Iran that it is serious but prefers not—or is not able—to conduct a military strike alone.  American policy makers, media, and think tank hangers-on, in saying that Iran's nuclear program is advancing and Israel might act, are warning both Israel and Iran.  For its part, Iran, facing economic crisis caused by external sanctions and internal mismanagement, is increasing its bellicose threats, attacking Israel and American interests around the world, and seeking—not very successfully—to gain pan-Muslim support with its theological justifications for exterminating all Jews.

At a deeper level, the messages reflect cultures.  Every Israeli, from taxi drivers and privates on up, is a strategic expert and certified loudmouth.  Israel's apparent information warfare strategy counts on this fact, which increases the quantity of information Iran must process and the noise-to-signal ratio. True, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyanu have the ultimate say; but Iran must also monitor the press, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media for information about the attitudes of Israeli decision makers and the public.

Which information is most reliable or telling?  Why does former Mossad chief Meir Dagan oppose striking Iran while Strategic Affairs Minister and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon warns that Iran is developing its capacity to attack America?  What do foreign diplomats really know when they discuss evacuating their nationals from Israel?  Which Israeli conscript is unintentionally relaying operational information about exercises, leaves, and deployments?  Making all the chatter more confusing are calls from authoritative chatterers, like Ehud Barak, to tone it down.  

Israeli culture—blunt, annoyingly diffuse, and cacophonous in the best of times—may be serving a strategic purpose.  It has successfully created the perception of a country on the brink, in the late stages of calculation before doing something crazy that could bring the world crashing down. All strategic equations are known and publicly discussed, from F-15 refueling capabilities to the concrete-penetrating capacity of a GBU-28 bomb to Hezbollah missile numbers to the effect of closing the Straits of Hormuz on world oil prices.  The discussion pressures the international community—and confuses Iran.

Meanwhile, the Iranian leadership proceeds from a closed, theological world view, characterized by both a general Islamic sense of triumphalism and global revolutionary aspirations and specific Shi'ite traits including messianism and a sense of persecution.  The regime's paranoid world view is intensified by economic sanctions and pressures, mysterious airplane crashes and pipeline explosions, assassinations of scientists and Revolutionary Guard officers, discontent in the streets, and contempt from the world and even fellow Muslims.  There are also cultural predispositions—toward secretiveness and suspicion sometimes masked by obsequiousness toward power, willingness to lie, loathing of compromise and weakness, and a deep-seated need for national honor and respect.  Thus, the regime processes and transmits information in ways fundamentally different from those of other states.

How well, then, can the leadership understand relationships among the United States, Europe, Israel, and the United Nations, or even the country it dominates?  An ancient commercial culture like Iran's must understand that it is being deliberately bombarded with conflicting signals.  But the current strategy against Iran is an information Stuxnet, a virus that clogs its cognitive systems and makes them spin out of control.  One index of this confusion is the intensification of cultural purges—the banning of Barbie dolls and the Simpsons—in an effort to wall Iran off from impurity and restore Islamic values to an Iranian people so de-Islamified that their birth rate is lower than that of France.    

Thus, a low-cost information warfare strategy has usefully increased Iranian paranoia, intensified debates between information collectors and analysts and their masters, deepened bitter factional divides, and spurred costly and destructive counterintelligence operations that have led to purges, dissent, and repression.  Iranian threats, which have become shriller and cruder, must be taken seriously; but they express weakness as much as strength.  At the same time, the information warfare is gradually pushing Western states towards unity around a clearer narrative of Iranian hostile intentions.  

The strategy is not without its price: It has reinforced the drive to move the Iranian nuclear program underground, literally.  Moreover, like Stuxnet, targeted killings, or even a bombing campaign, it can only slow the program; it would take a regime change to stop it.  Meanwhile, the room for miscalculation, especially on the Iranian side, is vast.  There is also room for miscalculation on the other side.  It is far from clear that the United States fully understands its Israeli ally, as shown by recent administration hysteria over a low-level local planning board's approval of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that won't be built for years, if at all.

But a recent, largely overlooked statement by President Obama suggests that that the two countries share a larger view.  "I don't think Israel has made a decision," he said.  "I think they, like us, believe that Iran has to stand down on its nuclear weapons program. . . .  Until they do, I think Israel rightly is going to be very concerned, and we are as well."  Whether this means the two countries' public disagreements are part of a single strategy is another confusing question for Iran to fret over.

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