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.
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.