Similarly, as Al-Alam’s target audience has enlarged from Iraqi Shiites to Iraqis to Arabs, so has its programming to include news, interviews, and discussions focusing on other major Arab hotspots, such as Lebanon and Palestine, in addition to Iraq and Iran. As would be expected, there are still more programs focused on Shiite history, places of interest, or communities, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, and much more coverage of Iran—both political and non political stories—than there would be on other Arabic language channels. While Al-Alam tries to imitate the look of the well-respected Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya—adopting an Arabic-calligraphy logo and running news on a ticker below—it is nonetheless understood by viewers that Al-Alam is the voice of Iran.
“You can see very much that it’s a state run channel,” says an Arab media analyst for a Europe-based media-monitoring group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The content comes directly from the state; you can tell straight away it’s a mouthpiece for the Iranian government rather than a channel that is editorially independent.”
And what Iran is trying to say with Al-Alam also seems easily understood by Arab audiences.
First, the channel relentlessly portrays Iran—from its culture to its politics to its leaders to its advances in science and technology to its accomplishments in sport—in a positive light, whether it’s Iran developing nuclear technology or Iranian soccer stars dazzling on the pitch.
Second, it pushes Arabs to embrace a pan-Islamic identity over their national and ethnic identities, to get Arabs to see themselves first as Muslims, as opposed to Arabs, or Egyptians, Palestinians, and so forth. Al-Alam thus in its newscasts emphasizes the victimization of these people as Muslims as opposed to as Palestinians, Iraqis, or Lebanese or Sunni or Shiite for instance.
As the situation has changed in Iraq to one of sectarian conflicts, thus contradicting the idea of pan-Muslim solidarity in practice, Al-Alam does not emphasize the sect of the victims or perpetrators of violence. Indeed, the Web site in English and Arabic says that the channel is “trying to avoid stirring religious and ethnic strife.” Instead, the channel downplays the sectarian-based civil war in Iraq by blaming Al Qaeda for importing extremism into Iraq. And it blames the U.S.’s botched invasion for the presence of Al Qaeda.
Third, Al-Alam emphasizes Iran’s willingness to stand up against those who would, in its view, further victimize Muslims, as a way to portray itself as the true defender of Islam and as the leader of this pan-Islamic constituency. Hence, says the Arab media analyst, the footage of the sailors on Al-Alam was meant to tell Arabs, “Here we are, this is what we can do, something the lot of you can’t even dream of doing, bringing the U.K. to its knees.”
Just as Iranian leaders Khamenei and Ahmadinejad on camera wrap themselves in the kafiyah (the black and white checkered scarf, symbol of Palestinian solidarity, and of little significance in Iran), Al-Alam takes on the causes and aspirations of Arab nationalism, as if they are its own because Iran is majority Muslim as well.
The Web site echoes this in its English mission statement (curiously not in the Arabic one), saying that its objectives include “reviving mutual understanding, cooperation, and solidarity among Muslims on the basis of common cultural identity.”
But observers are quick to point out that Iran’s main interest is not religion. “Iran is not interested in uniting Muslims; it’s naïve to believe they are promoting Islam or Islamic culture,” says Nabil Dajani, communications professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB), “Iran is interested in propagating Iran’s position.”
Iran’s message of pan-Islamic solidarity is not being spread through the airwaves to the Arab world only. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (the IRIB), which controls Al-Alam and all Iranian channels, also has a well-financed array of TV and radio services in over thirty languages, targeting Muslims across Central Asia and the Caucasus as well. Some of the languages included are Turkish, Azeri, Dari, English, Hebrew, Kurdish, Uzbek, and Turkmen. In 2007 alone, Iran allocated $250 million for satellite transmissions.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei maintains control of the IRIB, monitoring its programs and appointing the managers. Those managers have not been journalists. The former head (1994-2004) was Ali Larijani, who now heads the National Security Council and who during the sailor standoff most often stated Iran’s position on camera. He was replaced by his deputy, Ezzatollah Zarghami, who was a member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. According to Paul Hidalgo of the Iran Analytical Report, an NGO in Washington D.C., his appointment strengthens the hand of conservatives in Iran who are taking a hard-line approach to maintaining Iran as a theocracy.