Iranians connect to West through TV call-in program

Only minutes into the broadcast, it becomes clear that the regime’s chokehold on communication denies those of us in the West a full picture of life under Ayatollah Khamanei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Tehran Iran election protests 300 (photo credit: Anonymous)
Tehran Iran election protests 300
(photo credit: Anonymous)
It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening in Iran as I sit down for a repeat stint as co-host of The Voice of The New Iran television program that airs from Los Angeles via satellite. The program, which airs several times each week, is the product of The New Iran, one of the leading Iranian opposition groups, and according to the program’s participants, provides a welcome alternative to efforts by the regime to control information flow as well as behavior of its subjects.
The program is anchored by Dr. Iman Foroutan, who also provides the consecutive translation to and from Farsi of my conversation with callers phoning in from across Iran, including on this program, Tehran, Karadm, Shiraz, Tabriz, Fars and Mashad.
Only minutes into the broadcast, it becomes clear that the regime’s chokehold on communication denies those of us in the West a full picture of life under Ayatollah Khamanei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It also makes it difficult for Iranians to stay in touch with what the rest of the world is saying about their country and, perhaps even more important, what the Iranian leadership is telling the world.
One interesting paradox that becomes apparent is that while international sanctions are clearly having an impact on the quality of life for Iranians – witness 30% increases in food prices; and shortages of bread, wheat and chicken while the government has been unable to pay last month’s salaries – the resulting situation provides the government with new pressure points through which to manipulate the population.
Several callers, for example, provided vivid illustrations of the lengths to which the government goes to stage-manage the population into serving as unknowing pawns in its schemes. Unsurprisingly, one of the first phone calls, from a man who identifies himself as a laborer, deals with the issue of Iran’s nuclear energy program. But it was, indeed, surprising to hear him dismiss the entire issue, saying, “we don’t want atomic energy; we don’t have chicken or food to eat.” Although other callers differed and some defended the right of Iran to pursue nuclear energy, I learned that one way to ‘earn’ one of those elusive chickens was to show up at an appropriate location where the government is filming “spontaneous” street demonstrations and receive a chicken in return for chanting, “Death to America; Death to Israel!”
Another example came from the conference of non-aligned nations, whose $600 million price tag angered Iranians. Officials there decided it would be a good idea to reduce the number of locals hanging around the city fearing that the large foreign presence would make a good audience for protests. By way of inducement, a one-week holiday was declared and lest residents failed to take the hint, a gift of 30-liters of free gasoline was added to the mix.
Sometimes still, it boils down to hard cash. A caller told of printed notices that alerted cash-strapped Iranians to a drawing to be held at a mosque, with winners to receive gold coins. Embracing the same new technology it seeks to control, the government also alerts the masses through SMS messaging. Once at the scene, though, the price of entry remains the same: photogenic chants of anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans. Foroutan confirmed the positioning of trucks nearby used for filming the crowd scenes.
Foroutan claims the power of sanctions is a double-edged sword that is, in reality, adding to the hardships felt on the streets while not affecting nuclear capabilities and advancements. Because the Revolutionary Guard controls about 50 percent of the economy -- including food distribution -- it compensates for the effect felt by sanctions by doubling the prices to consumers.
Control of news content is apparently a priority for the Iranian government. Callers described the abundance of game shows and programming devoid of hard news, aimed, they said, at “keeping the public in the dark from news of war.” When I asked the audience whether it believed Israel would launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the first caller turned it back at me, demanding, “You’re the reporter, you tell us.” Another showed the government propaganda machine’s success, suggesting Israel is not in position to attack anyone after “losing its last two or three wars in Lebanon, giving encouragement to Islamic leaders regarding what Israel might or might not do.”
Yet, notwithstanding opposition to Iran’s rulers, nationalistic fervor was not absent from the population sample represented by the callers. One averred that, “I hate the regime and I’ll be one of the first to attack it, but if Israel attacks Iran, I’ll be the first [to fight] against them.”
Producing and being able to air The Voice of The New Iran does not come without difficulties. Dr. Foroutan told The Media Line that as the government catches on to the use of the program’s technology, it has been necessary to change the encrypted phone lines several times as officials intensify efforts to block the access of the Iranian people to the outside world. “Every time we have a television program, the mullahs have teams that jam or scramble our phone lines or line-up multiple callers cussing us.” The primary goal of The New Iran is to foment non-violent regime change and facilitate transition to a constitutional democracy.
Sensing an approaching critical mass of opposition to the regime, Foroutan believes the new momentum is encouraging the uniting of opposition groups inside Iran including S.O.S. Iran, Secular Greens, and the Constitutional Party of Iran. He said their common message is to hold out a little longer “until there is more support from the United States and European countries.” He acknowledged that “it’s premature” for a popular uprising to overthrow the regime, pointing to Russian and Chinese interference with the plans of Syria’s opposition to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, Iran’s opposition desperately wants the United States to provide wireless Internet “as they did in Afghanistan.” Foroutan said, “It’s the one weapon Iran is most afraid of. At this moment, Iran can shut down Internet or bring it to a snail’s pace.”
Still, Iranians are willing to risk a great deal to maintain contact with the outside world. A university student fluent in English said he was grateful that I was looking into the Iranian people’s civil society. “The peoples’ priority was never nuclear power,” he said on-air. “When we sleep, and see the next morning that our shopping bags have shrunk, that’s what counts.
For more stories from The Media Line go to