The IRIB does have an office in the U.S., in New York City, where they are permitted to cover the United Nations. However, U.S. law prohibits IRIB journalists from traveling beyond a twenty-five mile radius, and they are only permitted to do stand-up on camera from the UN. IRIB’s bureau chief, Morteza Ghoroghi, told CJR from his modest office on the 30th floor of the Lincoln Building on East 42nd Street that there’s nothing sinister about the IRIB’s foreign language services. “It doesn’t mean that we want to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries,” Ghoroghi says. “We want to improve cooperation between people in the region.”
The way to do that, Ghoroghi elaborates, is to expose other Muslims to the Iranian view of Islam and how Iran has translated that view into a government free from American influence and into a stable multi-ethnic society that is able to pursue a nuclear program, as well as make other advances in science and medicine.
“Iran is a model of an Islamic country in the region, we only explain our view and they can choose.” The mass media, he says, is one obvious way of getting those views out, citing U.K. and U.S. external channels.
The U.S. itself, of course, has also realized the power of the airwaves in communicating with Arab audiences, launching Al-Hurra (The Free One) in 2004. And this year the governments of France, Germany, Russia, and Britain have launched or will launch their own Arabic language channels. But Iran, notes the Arab media analyst in Europe, “saw this coming before anyone else. They were very clever.”
The U.S. State Department, says David Foley (spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs) pays close attention to all the views broadcast out of the Middle East and sees Iran’s foray into foreign language satellite news as inevitable. “They see it as useful for their interests to be able to reach out and communicate to these audiences. It’s not surprising at all since we do and so do others. We all are looking for the ability to speak to important audiences.”
But for the moment, despite numerous invitations, State is not going on Al-Alam, though Foley says that’s not a policy, and the practice might change in the near future. For now, he says State declines those interview opportunities because of concerns Al-Alam will manipulate how they are used. In the meantime, the U.S. reportedly has plans to pursue a satellite TV channel in Farsi to communicate to Iranians directly.
IRIB’s Ghoroghi is not feeling threatened. He believes Iran’s way—Muslim solidarity—is a much better way than what the U.S. has brought to the region. When asked whether the sectarian violence Iraqis are committing against other Iraqis would suggest there is no one pan-Islamic solution that will work all over the Muslim world, he reiterates the Al-Alam position. He explains that in the chaos the U.S. has created, Al Qaeda has moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, and it is Al Qaeda that spreads sectarian extremism. When asked about the Shiite militias and violence committed against Sunni Iraqis, he insists that were it not for Al Qaeda, Iraqis wouldn’t be extreme. “If Al Qaeda is stopped, the Shiia won’t kill the other people,” he says.
He is quick to add that the U.S. isn’t serious about stopping Al Qaeda. If they were, he says, the U.S. would push ally Saudi Arabia to cut its financing of Al Qaeda and push its ally Pakistan to stop Al Qaeda from operating out of its country.
“Extremism,” he says solemnly, “is dangerous.”
While the three messages—Iran’s goodness, pan-Islamic identification, and Iran as Islam’s defender—are almost overtly pervasive, there is also another subtle sub-current in Al-Alam’s programming that seeks to acquaint viewers with the Shiite sect of Islam, its history, theology, accomplishments, and glories. (Most Arab Muslims are Sunni.) Thus Iran, through Al-Alam, is simultaneously claiming a place of honor for the sect while preaching the irrelevance of sects. Though the potential contradiction could weaken Al-Alam’s coherence, Iran needs to communicate both messages to reconcile Iran’s Shiite identity to its majority Sunni viewers. “Iran considers itself a regional power, and by all right it should be,” says Bill Berkeley, author of a forthcoming book on the Iranian hostage crisis, “but because it’s Shiite, it’s held in contempt.”
Under different circumstances, simultaneously propagating these contradicting messages would be a juggling act of rattled cobras, and Al-Alam ordinarily would have to contend with the reality that Iran is separated from the Arab world (already not monolithic and not united) by language, theology, culture, and history—and has been for centuries.