After confessing to the world on camera that she and her British crew had trespassed into Iranian waters this past March, sailor Faye Turney pressed a cigarette to her lips and took a long, deep drag. The way she immediately reached for the fix and inhaled its relief seemed to belie everything she had just been prompted to say by her Iranian interviewer, from her admission of guilt to how her captors were friendly, hospitable, thoughtful, and compassionate.
Five days had passed since the world had seen Turney and fourteen other U.K. sailors and marines who had disappeared into Iranian detention for allegedly violating their waters. During her “interview,” Turney was no longer in her sailor’s uniform, wearing instead a boxy white blazer, her hair covered by a black compulsory headscarf. While she and a commentator spoke, B-roll showed several shots: the British crew being transported on a vessel flying the Iranian flag, a letter from Turney to her parents, and the crew again eating dinner off white trays resting on their laps.
Until Iranian state-run TV broadcast these images, those around the globe envisioning what may have happened to the sailors and marines in Iranian captivity were at the mercy of their imaginations, influenced by Iran’s human rights record, by what pundits were warning, and by the potential consequences of internationally reported American and British mistreatment of Muslim prisoners.
The diplomatic standoff continued for another seven days, interspersed with more videos released from Iran showing more confessions from other crewmembers of the HMS Cornwall. Then suddenly, much to the surprise of British officials working to secure their sailors’ release, the affair ended. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pardoned the crew, calling it a gift to the British people in advance of Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday—all of this again broadcast live and on state-run TV.
Upon their return, the British service members disclosed at a press conference that indeed, those images had all been staged, that, in fact, they had been blindfolded, isolated in cold stone cells, tricked into fearing they would be imminently executed, and coerced into saying they had entered Iranian waters. Iran responded to these allegations with yet more video that showed that during their time in Iran, the crew lounged in tracksuits, watched soccer matches on television, and laughed and smiled often.
To many in the West, the Iranian spin and propaganda were hardly sophisticated and seemed wasted efforts, given that they would easily be contradicted once the soldiers could speak freely. But the West was missing the point; it was hardly the exclusive target of the Iranian government’s showboating. What Iran had just executed was the latest in an ambitious and savvy media project, in motion since early 2003, to use the TV news format to gain popularity and power regionally in the Middle East.
Easily lost in the fray was the fact that all the HMS Cornwall videos were first shown on the Al-Alam network, an Arabic-language satellite and terrestrial channel broadcast from Iran but only to locations outside of Iran. (Though Iran is in a predominantly Arab neighborhood and is also predominantly Muslim like most in that neighborhood, Iran is not an Arab country and the language spoken there is Farsi, not Arabic.) Thus the breaking news was first delivered not to Iranian viewers—who were keenly awaiting any indication their government might drag them into a military conflict with England—but to Arabic-speaking consumers on Iran’s own state-controlled Arabic news channel. Had Iran first shown those images on Farsi-language TV, Arab viewers, like others around the world, would have likely seen them rebroadcast later on their channels of choice, where Iranian spin would have been much more filtered.
While Iran’s capture of the U.K. personnel, as well as its pursuit of a nuclear program, and its recent arrests of American academics, prove that Iran is capable of exercising traditional military/police power to strengthen its position globally and in the region, Iran is also flexing its toned (if not robust) muscles of soft power by waging a concurrent campaign on the airwaves in the neighboring Arab world. Al-Alam is its principal tool in this endeavor.