If you watch Iran's state television evening news with its staple diet the horror and strife of the western world, British protesters jeering Condoleezza Rice, rallies for immigrant rights in the "inherently racist" United States, anti-government marches across France, the images of mayhem, carnage and Abu Ghraib-type abuse in Iraq then you might form an impression that confirmed the judgment of President Carter at a state dinner in the Shah's Iran at the end of 1977, a year before the revolution: that Iran was "an island of stability" in a troubled region.
Indeed, the worldview of state media in Iran according to which nothing seems more remote than the prospects of war or sanctions is a serious concern for the country's rulers. In 2004, Ali Larijani vacated his job of ten years as head of state broadcasting for another pivotal role as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in the supreme national security council and Iran's top nuclear negotiator.
At the same time, what is transmitted is also partly a consumer-driven affair. Viewers are increasingly indulged with an array of expensive programming, from Hollywood blockbusters that have yet to make it to terrestrial television screens in the west to slick homemade dramas and comedies.
While the western world's fears about Iran's nuclear crisis were gathering pace, the Iranian public's attention appeared to lie elsewhere. The whole country would come to a halt as people would switch on to watch The Nights of Barareh, a controversial comedy set in a fictional village at the turn of the 20th century. Its satirical script enthralled a whole nation, brazenly touching on topics that viewers could associate with daily life: sham elections, establishment corruption, women's rights and censorship; with a dour comical policeman who feverishly censors the local rag. The show was soon dropped, after outcries from hardliners, one declaring that state resources were being used to "wage war on the revolution".
Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005). She spent her formative years in Iran, attended university in Britain and worked in London, and then returned to her birthplace to work for an NGO for a number of years. Today she lives in Britain.
Also by Nasrin Alavi on openDemocracy:
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (November 2005)
But even within the context of a tightly-controlled organ of state, boundaries are pushed to the limits on a daily basis: the young interviewer who asks an official uncomfortable questions live on air; a documentary that features a poem by a dissident writer; or the scheduler who with a delicious irony shows a director's cut of the timeless Italian classic Cinema Paradiso (1994), a story about love and the futility of puritanical religious censorship, on the Islamic Republic of Iran's state television network.
Meanwhile, as the nuclear crisis fuels the United States-Iran gap, Iranian cinema-goers get to see an Iranian-American happy ending. Marriage, Iranian Style showing nationwide is a love story between an American boy and an Iranian girl. The American gives in to the demands of the heroine's religious family, they get married and live happily ever after.
Back in the real world, the Americans appear at best set on freeing Iranians' minds from the conformist stupor which their state media attempts to inculcate. The preferred instrument is increased satellite television programming via the Voice of America, whose programmes popular amongst Iran's urban middle classes are broadcast seven days a week; this is in marked contrast with Iran's own al-Alam channel, beamed into Iraqi homes by powerful transmitters on the border. Al-Alam reached Iraq in 2003, before the soldiers of the US-led coalition, and is now available to most people in a country where (not unlike Iran) satellite dishes remain largely unaffordable. Iran remains committed to resisting the cultural invasion by increasing the number of jamming stations capable of disrupting VOA-style broadcasts.
The friends of freedom
The Iranian regime remains skilled at media management. In the last decade it has closed down more than a hundred media publications (including forty-one daily newspapers) for crossing its red lines. But along the way some have dared to continue crossing these lines and in doing so they are steadily shifting Iran's cultural and political landscape.
The journalist Akbar Ganji was imprisoned for six years for exposing a "power mafia" network behind the murders of writers and intellectuals. Unabated he continued his criticism of Iran's regime from behind bars. Ganji like many of his countrymen who have lived through a recent revolution and experienced the radicalism and terror that it unleashed does not advocate another revolution. But he has openly called for the Iranian supreme leader to stand down.
The human-rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, a committed Muslim, has battled for an interpretation of her faith that is compatible with democracy; she is convinced that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within. Ebadi writes that she has been imprisoned and threatened to death for her efforts by those who denounce her "as an apostate for daring to suggest that Islam can look forward and denounced outside the country by secular critics of the Islamic Republic, whose attitudes are no less dogmatic."
Ganji and Ebadi are only two examples of people willing to stand for freedom and dignity in Iran; they are far from lone, friendless voices. The acclaim of the public and their peers is evidence enough: after receiving the Nobel peace prize in 2003, Ebadi was greeted at Tehran airport by a joyous crowd numbering "hundreds of thousands", while more recently Ganji received Iran's highset accolade for a journalist, the "golden pen award" from his professional colleagues.
What is the connection between these critical voices and issues of national security? In an interview on 5 May in Washington, Shirin Ebadi reminded us that despite the qualms people have with the regime, faced with outside aggression they will unite and "defend their country" adding that "democracy in Iran is not moving forward because censorship is being applied in Iran more seriously"; a prevailing censorship that has intensified in the face of outside pressure.
While a frantic western media debates Iran's nuclear crisis, an aggressive media effort in Iran reassures the public that there is no crisis to speak of. A national security council directive to journalists prohibits negative mention of Iran's nuclear negotiations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quizzed by reporters about his letter to George W Bush published on 7 May 2006, responded that it was not about the "nuclear issue" and that "we don't consider the nuclear matter a significant issue to write about it".
Although many Iranians may believe that acquiring nuclear energy is Iran's "inalienable right" and in their long-term economic and national interests, in reality the picture is more complex. Iran's largest nationwide student group, Tahkim Vahdat published an open letter warning of the dangers facing the country "under conditions where the Iranian people have no role or presence in the situation and as always the regime considers them strangers or outsiders".
Yet there is no crowing about uranium enrichment among ordinary Iranians, who are more interested in whether Ahmadinejad can deliver on his electoral promises. They don't speak in hushed voices as they go through a daily litany that makes up much of the conversations on busses and taxis: inflation, economic stagnation, unemployment, corruption, poverty and drugs. To them, Ahmadinejad is not an all-powerful head of a monolithic regime, but a toothless president that can be overruled at any time by figures and institutions that make up a fracturing elite.
Travelling through the provinces Ahmadinejad has made blank-cheque promises that may yet come back to haunt him; while the majlis (parliament) has resisted endorsing his extravagant inflationary handouts.
On 1 May, when Iran was entering a critical stage of the nuclear crisis, Iranian workers celebrated international workers' day by protesting for secure employment opportunities. Their chanted slogans included variations on the regime's claim that nuclear technology is the country's "inalienable right": "To strike is our inalienable right" and "Permanent employment is our inalienable right". Such satirical adaptations of the current favourite official line also form the punchline of many popular jokes. An example is an online sketch by Iran's leading cartoonist, Nikahang Kowsar (now living in exile in Toronto), alluding to renewed efforts by the regime to block internet sites and weblogs; it portrays Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, disabling a PC while saying "not knowing is our inalienable right".
This is the latest article in a growing openDemocracy debate about how war with Iran can be avoided:
Kaveh Ehsani, "On the brink: the Great Satan vs the Axis of Evil"
(3 May 2006)
Mary Walsh, " The Iran crisis: a United Nations solution" (8 May 2006)
Trita Parsi, " The United States's double-vision in Iran" (9 May 2006)
Raymond Barrett, " Iran through Arab eyes"
(10 May 2006)
Scilla Elworthy, "If diplomacy fails"
(11 May 2006)
Hazem Saghieh, "Iran's politics: constants and variables"
(12 May 2006)
David Rahni, "Iranian-Americans and a war on Iran"
(15 May 2006)
For an overview of the debate, click here
The cyberspace republic
With an estimated 700,000 blogs, Farsi is now the fourth most popular language for keeping online journals. The internet has opened a new virtual space for free speech in a country dubbed the "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East", by Reporters sans Frontières (RSF). Those who lived through the Iranian revolution of 1979 are now a minority. In the post-revolution baby-boom, Iran's population has more than doubled to almost 70 million, of whom 70% are under 30 years old. At the same time, literacy is well over 90%, even in rural areas; and in 2005 more than 65% of students entering university were women.
This demographic shift means that young people dominate Iranian society and that educated young voices speak most clearly and sharply in the Iranian blogosphere. They have experienced the limitations of a theocracy in the restrictive absurdities imposed upon their daily lives, and they see radical Islam more as a problem than as a universal remedy. For them, Ahmadinejad is not the champion of political Islamism around the world but at best a figure of fun.
The fears, hopes, dreams and aspirations of these young Iranians are no different to modern young people elsewhere in the world and likewise they are more concerned by issues that immediately affect their lives: relationships, job prospects and tighter social restrictions.
Since his election, President Ahmadinejad has been under a frenzied western media spotlight, his every move and directive making headlines. He was even reported to have banned western music. But the gap between the president's desires and what actually takes place is vast.
Among Tehran's maddening traffic, the trance-techno soundtracks of homegrown pop sensation Benyamin relentlessly boom out of rickety taxis and flash cars. You won't hear him on state radio or television. Benyamin is detested by much of the older generation Iranian literati and conservative clerics alike. He sings about love, boredom, but also about his faith with tributes to Shi'a imams. His popular demographically-driven "reformation" hymns, which couldn't have been aired before the Islamic revolution, reveal so much about Iran's journey in the past generation. If any attempt were made to broadcast them in Shi'a regions of Iraq today, they might well trigger riots similar in scale to those unleashed over the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.
Iran's flowering youth are described by the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo as the "fourth generation" who are moving away from political Islam towards an "Iranian secularism", based on Islamic traditions and Persian cultural history. In his latest book Moje Chaharom (The Fourth Wave) he argues: "Today, the youth rejects violence and values tolerance and dialogue." Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent then in Iran's burgeoning blogosphere.
Jahanbegloo is head of the department for contemporary studies at Iran's cultural research bureau and "(like) many intellectuals of his generation who have experienced revolution, war, and violence deeply committed to political dialogue, non-violence, and democratic processes". Following his arrest in Tehran on 27 April, Jomhouri Eslami (a hardline regime daily newspaper) accused him of being on the "US payroll" and "part of the American strategy for the smooth overthrow" of the regime.
In such circumstances, more external pressure and declarations by the United States such as the request for $75 million additional financial aid for democracy promotion in Iran is another pretext for hardliners to suppress internal activists. A military attack against Iran would have obvious disastrous humanitarian repercussions. It would also undermine the brave efforts of Iran's young people and independent thinkers to carve a space of freedom at the very time they need support and in thus reinforcing the most hardline elements of the regime, set back Iranian society by another generation.