Worried that military options carry dire consequences, Westerners have decided to conquer Iran on subtler battlefields: satellite TV and the Internet.
The key targets: the nearly 70% of the Iranian population who are under the age of 30, many of them highly educated and technologically literate.
Although satellite TV is officially banned in Iran, there are about 20 million satellite dishes there, with roughly 50% of the urban populations having access.
Aside from U.S. propaganda (some subtle, some overt) on satellite, some 20 commercial satcasters, funded privately by U.S.-based Iranians, beam into the country from Los Angeles, or “Tehrangeles,” as some refer to it, since that city boasts the highest number of Iranians outside the country.
The Internet also has exploded, particularly for spreading the pro-reform and democracy movements. Iran is estimated to have up to 80,000 blogs, one of the highest in the world, and an estimated 7 million Internet users, who account for 10% of the population.
The U.S. government is hoping to woo Iranians with “soft diplomacy,” knowing that military aggression could provoke counterattacks.
Iran is openly pursuing a policy of nuclear enrichment, saying it wants only nuclear energy, but many fear it use the resources to build an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has caused alarm in the international community with such comments that he wants to wipe Israel off the map.
So to woo the hearts and minds of the Iranian population, outsiders are offering political chatshows, sports coverage, musicvideos and even an online dating service.
The U.S. House of Representatives is weighing a bill to give an added $75 million to Iran-targeted satellite TV, following Senate passage May 4. Though no decisions have been made on where the money will be spent, the majority will likely go toward beefing up the U.S.-funded Voice of America, which beams a Persian-language service into the country.
Other options on the table include everything from setting up a shortwave radio station in Iran run by pro-reform Iranians to the possibility of transmitting into the country from neighboring Iraq and Dubai. Plans for an independent Farsi satcaster are being examined.
The Bush administration’s attitude is clear, since the $75 million bill was backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
With diplomacy faltering and military strikes a last resort, the role of the media will be crucial.
“I can’t think of any priority higher than communicating with the Iranian people,” says Alberto Fernandes, the director of Press and Public Diplomacy at the State Dept.’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Abbas Milani, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, agrees.
“If the forces for democracy win the media war, then the democratic movement in Iran will have a much, much stronger chance of becoming reinvigorated and eventually change the system.”
Ali Nourizadeh, who presents a nightly one-hour show, “Window on the Fatherland,” on the privately funded Channel One, says, “Satellite TV is increasing rapidly. It has become a part of life in Iran. Even if you can’t afford to buy a dish, your neighbor will have one, so he will give you a link.”
Channel One and another commercial enterprise, National Iranian Television (NITV), concentrate on political programs, while Tapesh TV, Jaam-e-Jaam and Rangarang TV offer everything from music-clip shows to sports, even covering the hugely popular national soccer team, aimed at Iran’s youth.
These offer entertaining and political alternatives to the eight state-run TV channels and eight radio stations, which all operate under state control and censorship.
“The Internet is so big in Iran that even if some people don’t have food to eat, they will still have a computer,” says broadcaster Nourizadeh.
Given government censorship and reprisals against journalists, the Internet is even more crucial. After five years in prison, dissident journalist Akbar Ganji began a life-threatening hunger strike. In March, Iranian blogs began carrying the news. Ganji was freed shortly after.
“The fastest way to get the word around is through the Internet. It’s the same now when someone gets arrested,” says Milani.
Milani says he receives up to 100 emails a week from Iran, with many of them from rural bloggers.
Of the Rice-inspired bill, $50 million would help establish round-the-clock Farsi TV broadcasts into the country. Those broadcasts would work in tandem with the existing U.S.-funded 24-hour Radio Farda, which beams out of Prague.
In addition, the Voice of America has already budgeted to expand its Persian-language satcast from its current one hour a day to four by the end of summer.
Radio Farda’s Web site is being revamped and re-launched within the month to primarily target Iran’s 15-29 age demographic. Cyberspace also will provide a key forum for U.S. officials to connect directly with the Iranian people.
“We’re looking at all available tools — satellite TV and radio as well as innovative technologies, podcasts, SMS — to go beyond the traditional thinking of broadcast media. We’re open to the idea of a broader platform across multiple information streams,” says David Dennehy, a State Dept. adviser on Iran.
VOA’s expansion had been budgeted prior to a speech Rice gave earlier this year urging more funding for communcation efforts.
“The plans are there to go up to 24 hours a day. The ultimate goal of this is to continue to increase until it’s universal,” says Larry Hart, communications coordinator at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency responsible for all U.S. government-sponsored international broadcasting.
One of the main challenges facing VOA and Radio Farda with everyday Iranians is credibility, particularly when no attempts are made to hide its U.S. government funding. Although the outlets are popular with Iranians for news coverage and offer an alternative voice to the Iranian regime, their status as impartial messengers of objective reporting is less than certain. The line between propaganda and soft diplomacy is a thin one.
“We’re not in the regime- change business. We’re in the news business. If we were to go into the regime-change business, we wouldn’t last very long in the news business,” says Brian Mabry, a VOA public affairs officer.
While U.S.-funded outlets such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty played important roles during the Cold War in giving countries behind the Iron Curtain an insight into Western culture, they were dealing with the pre-satellite world. Now any aspiring independent outlet has to find new ways to grab the attention of its audience.
That’s one of the reasons why VOA is paying particular attention to expanding its youth-oriented culture show “Next Chapter” as opposed to simply offering more news programs. There was a feature on online dating on one particular episode but this is not a recurring programme.
L.A.-based satcaster stations are privately owned and commercially run and will not benefit from the U.S. government’s $75 million increase. National Iranian TV, the first satcaster to air from the U.S. in 2000, stopped transmitting in May.
“People ask me how much of the $75 million I’m getting, and I tell them I’m bankrupt,” says NITV’s founder Zia Atabay. “I’ve put $6 million of my money into NITV. … How can the State Department understand that NITV, the first one to broadcast into Iran, is going down, and they don’t do anything?”
While the L.A. satcasters are popular with certain sections of the Iranian population, particularly the upper middle class urbanites, some have questioned their effectiveness to influence political debate. Some groan that the more virulent antiregime conspiracy theories emanating out of them have inadvertently helped the hardline government of Ahmedinejad.
“They’re one of the reasons Ahmedinejad came to power. They were the biggest promoters of the election boycott among the upper middle class,” says Hossein Derakhshan, the former editor of an Iranian reformist newspaper who now runs one of Iran’s most popular Web blogs, Hoder.com. “They kept saying that the result had already been predecided and that (moderate former President Akbar Hashemi) Rafsanjani would win. Satellite TV definitely played a role in the apathy that led to Ahmedinejad’s victory.”