Twenty years ago—when I was only seven years old—Iranian television broadcasting was limited to two channels. I remember well how one of the channels used to broadcast an Arabic program for an hour every Friday afternoon. Images of the Palestinian Intifada accompanied by mournful music make up a vivid part of my childhood memories.
Over recent years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has increasingly tried to expand its international broadcasting. That one-hour program twenty years ago has now been developed into a number of separate, costly television channels, including round-the-clock news networks, religious channels, film broadcasting, and so on.
Iran’s leaders have consistently accused foreign media of a so-called ‘cultural invasion’: a broadcasting campaign set to undermine the authority and legitimacy of Iran’s government. Amid the post-election protests in 2009, the government laid the blame on satellite television channels, accusing them of conspiring to spark protests in the streets of Iran. This view has not always been limited to the Islamic establishment; the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was convinced that the BBC’s Persian Service played a critical role in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the ultimate fall of the Pahlavi regime.
The Iranian authorities have tried tirelessly to wean the Iranian public off their steady diet of foreign media. This has been achieved to a certain extent by passing preventive regulations and penalties on foreign media on the one hand, while launching costly international broadcasting for ‘safeguarding the truth of Islam and defending the ideals of the regime, Imam [Khomeini] and the Revolution.’ However, the expansion of Tehran’s international broadcasting empire has overall met with limited success and has ruffled feathers amongst Iran’s regional neighbors.
In November 1997, the leaders of the Islamic Republic decided to launch new TV channels to propagate their Islamic views and broadcast the self-professed ‘voice of the revolution’. These satellite TV channels started their work under the name Sahar, literally meaning “dawn”; programs were broadcast in Russian, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Azeri, French, Bosnian, and Kurdish. All of these continue operating and expanding their broadcasts, except those aired in Russian and Turkish.
The most prominent of these networks has been Sahar Arabic TV, the channel that caused an outspoken reaction from the French government after it broadcast a low-quality but controversial movie called The Blue Eyes of Zahra. The movie was severely censured by the French authorities for being anti-Semitic, accusing the channel of denying the Holocaust. After this incident, Sahar Arabic TV was replaced by Al-Kawthar channel, a Tehran-based, 24-hour Arabic-language television network. The channel aims to strengthen and expand Shi’a doctrine across the Middle East, and to bring Arab Shi’ites closer to the Shi’a government of Iran. According to the producers of the channel, most of their viewers are Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’ites.
Another controversial channel belonging to the Sahar Universal Network is Sahar Azeri TV, which has caused mounting tensions in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. Both countries’ populations are predominantly Shi’ite; however, in the former country power lies unequivocally in the hands of clerics, while in the latter the leadership is fiercely opposed to religious governance. This fundamental difference between Iran and Azerbaijan has repeatedly elicited a negative reaction from Baku’s secular government, accusing Tehran of interfering with its internal affairs and pursuing their expansion of Islamism via their TV broadcasts in the Azeri language.
In December 2012, several senior employees of Sahar TV were arrested in Baku Airport. The reporters were detained on several charges, including drug trafficking. Ali Huseynov, the head of the socio-political department of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, visited Tehran and asked Iranian officials to halt Sahar TV broadcasts. On his return to Azerbaijan, local media quoted him saying, “I candidly and openly told Iranians that the Azerbaijan government is secular and following the path to modernity. Instead, the Iranian government is Islamist and ideological and is following its own way. You go your way and we go ours.”
Hoseynov also threatened to set up Shab TV, to be broadcast in Iran in retaliation for Sahar. Iran is evidently ignoring Azerbaijan’s threats. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) recently announced it will be increasing the working hours of Sahar Azeri TV from nine to twenty-four hours. The same plan is on the agenda for the French, Kurdish, and Urdu channels.
Iran’s broadcasting tensions with neighboring countries are not restricted to Sahar TV. Since the emergence of the Arab Spring, Iranian TV channels have come under attack from Gulf monarchies, especially in Bahrain. The Bahraini authorities have continually blamed Al-Alam TV for provoking unrest in the island kingdom.
Al-Alam is a Tehran-based, Arabic-language television network that began its work at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From its birth, it was evident that the main target audience was Iraq’s Shi’ite population. Although Al-Alam lags far behind Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya in terms of popularity and penetration, it has been influential among the Shi’ite populations of Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.
The most significant confrontation between Iranian media and those of Persian Gulf neighboring countries has been over the crisis in Syria. Al-Alam sided with Damascus-based television channels and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar in defending Assad’s government—and in doing so, confronting almost every other major Arab TV channel.
The controversial Al-Mayadeen TV channel was born out of the media dispute between those Arabic-language channels supporting the Assad government and those opposing it. Several prominent reporters left Al-Jazeera and set up Al-Mayadeen to counteract the influence of what they perceived to be Al-Jazeera’s anti-Assad agenda. Many believe that Al-Mayadeen is sponsored by Iran, and its overall views are affiliated with Iran’s interests in the region.
In 2007, Iran launched its 24-hour English-language television channel Press TV, with the aim of breaking the monopoly of Western media. This was Iran’s first serious attempt at entering the arena of Western media. It has thus far failed in this mission, unable to breach the popularity of regional rival Al-Jazeera and certainly unable to compete with the quality of Western media. Ideological restrictions are mainly responsible for having stifled the channel’s development. Those that do watch Press TV are drawn from the Muslim minorities in Western countries such as the UK.
Tehran’s Spanish attempt has been equally futile. Hispan TV, the latest international 24-hour news channel launched by Iran, mainly targets South American countries. These countries have little in common with Iranian ideology beyond a general anti-American orientation. The channel appears to be totally out of touch with its target audience, mainly airing low-budget Iranian shows dubbed into Spanish and religious documentaries.
Regardless of the quality of Iran’s global media, Tehran’s vulnerability lies in its disproportionate investment in international broadcasting, neglecting the audience at home. The poor quality of local channels recruits the Iranian audience to Persian-language satellite channels. This trend is unlikely to slow down any time soon as international sanctions strangle the IRIB, now on the verge of bankruptcy. Iranian officials have made costly mistakes in prioritizing their target audience. Instead of focusing their efforts on the domestic audience, they are trying to win over viewers abroad. In dealing with the needs of their own citizens, Iranian officials have so far excelled in jamming satellite signals and prohibiting the ownership of satellite dishes, while monopolizing the running of any kind of TV or radio station.