The channel has a clear mission: help Iran emerge as the region’s top power. In doing so, observers say Iran is also seeking to diminish the influence of its rivals in the region, namely Al Qaeda, the U.S., and most importantly, Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina. To achieve these goals with as little resistance as possible, Iran is using Al-Alam to take its case to the Arab people, capitalizing on the rift between Arab citizens and their governments, exploiting Arab anger towards the foreign policies of the U.S. and its allies, and playing up their common faith, Islam.
Though such pickings may seem easy, in doing so, Al-Alam is gambling that God will be enough for Arabs to embrace Iran as the region’s powerbroker, even though culture, tradition, language, demography, and history separate them, and has for centuries.
In March of 2003, Iraqis began to pick up on their televisions a new polished Arabic-language channel. Unlike many of their neighbors in other Arab countries, Iraqis were forbidden to have satellite dishes and therefore had little access to the myriad channels serving the Arab world with programming that included Western movies, saucy Arab music videos, sophisticated news outlets like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, and Arab versions of American and French reality shows.
Though the channel, Al-Alam (“The World”), was presented in flawless Arabic, the anchors and newscasters were Iranians. The channel, Iraqis soon learned, was coming from Iran itself. While the studios were in Teheran, it was using a relay station on a hill on the border to reach Iraqi television sets.
Saddam Hussein had exercised severe message control in Iraq for years and had little love for neighbor Iran, with whom Iraq had fought a war from 1980-1988 (backed by the U.S.) that caused more than a million war-related deaths on both sides. Not surprisingly then, Iran had little influence over how it was represented to Iraqis.
But by March 2003, the U.S. began to mobilize to invade Iraq, this time for the purpose of collapsing the regime. With Saddam Hussein’s imminent fall from power and the retreat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s primary security threats on either of its borders would be eliminated by the US. Iran’s leaders saw an opportunity to pursue its ambitions to become a weighty regional power. What it still needed was a government friendly to Iran in Iraq and the U.S. out of Iraq, and therefore off its border.
Thus, Iran seized the opportunity afforded by the information vacuum in Iraq to communicate directly with Iraqis, to change its image with Iraqis themselves.
In February of 2003, Al-Alam began broadcasting from Iran terrestrially into Iraq. The channel’s initial editorial position was clear: it showed extensive footage of dead Iraqi civilians in residential areas, it described coalition troops as occupiers, and its slogan for its coverage was the “war of domination.” Al-Alam’s target audience was, at first, Iraq’s Shiites, the repressed majority who spiritually looked to Iran.
Al-Alam soon launched in 2004 a corresponding Web site, www.alalam.ir, in Arabic and then, in 2006, in English, where visitors can watch the channel as well as read articles from both Al-Alam and wire services. The English version of the Web site announces Al-Alam is “trying to disseminate news in a sincere and impartial manner by keeping up a moderate line.” The mission statement says the site is also “trying to avoid any prejudgments and premature or biased conclusions. The channel broadcasts news, views and analyses and leaves judgment to the audience.” The Arabic version, which is not a mirror translation of the English one, also says the channel gives visitors a “real picture of the world by giving facts and so the visitors can make judgment of events by giving facts.”
The network quickly grew into a satellite channel, with bureaus not only in Tehran, but now in Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo and correspondents in other countries. On satellite, it can be watched in Europe, North and Central America, Asia, and Australia. Once Al-Alam expanded outside Iran, it was able to more heavily recruit from the ranks of already trained Arab journalists. Here in the U.S., Al-Alam’s correspondents are Arab nationals who work for small European news services.