Offering support through Persian-language media

How can one counter two generations of brainwashing by the Iranian government?

Shirley Shamsian (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shirley Shamsian
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 In recent days, as violence once again erupts on the streets of Iran, here in Israel Persian-language media channels have been inundated with heartfelt messages, video clips and desperate calls for help from Iranians. Because they feel like they can remain relatively anonymous on social media sites, they are sending out pleas to the world to wake up. 
“It’s accurate to say that the Iranian people are in a period of mourning,” says Shirley Shamsian, a former Persian TV broadcaster. “When Soleimani was killed, the Iranian regime declared a mandatory three-day mourning period, which was enforced by law. The Iranian people, however, decided to extend the mourning period to an entire week due to their intense sadness. And I can feel this sadness when I talk with people, and while reading their posts on social media. The main message of the protest was that Soleimani was a murderer, and that his leader, Khamenei, is a traitor and must resign immediately.”
“The Iranian people are calling out in pain, but can’t seem to find a place to make their voice heard,” explains Rani Amrani, director of Radio Ran, a Persian-language broadcast. “They don’t understand why Europe is sitting still and doing nothing to help them. In November, over 1,500 men, women and children were slaughtered and no one opened their mouth. We are protesting now to bring down the current government. The fact that no one at these protests is stepping on Israeli or American flags is highly significant.
Nowadays, anyone that does that is considered a traitor. This just goes to show that the youth today are the ones leading the protest movement.”
The trigger for the current protests was the admission by the Iranian regime that they’d mistakenly downed the Ukrainian airplane, which took the life of 176 innocent people, 82 of whom were Iranian. And, of course, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. 
Following the Ukrainian airplane debacle, thousands of protesters took to the streets again. And now the protests are spreading to other Iranian cities, such as Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamedan and of course the capital, Tehran. 
“The young Iranians understand that in order to build a new Iran, they’re going to need help from Israel,” says Shamsian. “The people who are out on the streets protesting are risking their lives. They can be put in jail just for not stamping on the flags. For the most part, Iranians love and support Israel.”
Shamsian made aliyah to Israel 30 years ago and manages two Persian-language Facebook pages: “A Message of Freedom,” which has 14,000 followers, most of whom are Iranians, and Radio Payam (Message in Persian), which has over 18,000 members. Radio Payam also has an extremely active telegram channel.
“Lots of people are posting on social media about what’s happening on the streets of Iran,” she says. “They upload videos and pictures, and are constantly begging us to help them. They say that the only people who care about them are Israel and Trump. Regarding the Ukrainian plane catastrophe, they don’t believe for one second that the Iranian government’s claim that it was a result of human error. The Iranian people are accusing the regime outright for carrying out this sad act. Some people uploaded a picture of Khomeini arriving on his plane 40 years ago, saying that if his plane had been taken down, they could have claimed that it was a mistake, but not when more than a hundred innocent people are killed.”
For the past seven years, Shamsian has been working, on a volunteer basis, to correct 40 years of brainwashing carried out by the Iranian government. 
“I see on Facebook all of the horrors taking place there now,” she continues, “and I just can’t sit by idly. The Persian-language pages that are managed by the prime minister’s office and another one by the IDF have improved slightly in recent years, but this is still not enough. And anyway, Iranians who read my posts are much more likely to believe me, a simple Israeli citizen, than what the government writes. They see me as a regular person who goes to work, takes care of her kids, with no reason to feel anything negative about the people of Iran. I make a concerted effort to write in a folksy style so that more people can relate to me. I want them to feel like I’m writing from the heart. Some of the people I’m in contact with even write me encouraging messages when there’s been rocket fire in Israel, asking how we are doing. Most of the time, they write to me about how difficult their day-to-day lives in Iran are nowadays.”
Not all the messages coming from the Islamic Republic of Iran express warmth and love for Israel, unfortunately. 
“Even before rumors of a possible connection between the Mossad and the assassination of Soleimani, some people wrote that they were sure Israel had a hand in the attack,” exclaims Shamsian. “Most messages have been positive, but some have included extremely harsh words, calling us the Little Satan and occupiers of Palestine. And this is where I feel like my hard work is having a positive effect, because I open up a dialogue with these individuals and explain to them what’s really going on here. One Iranian woman I’ve been in contact with for over seven years now confided in me that once when she was arrested for participating in a protest, she was raped in prison. I promised her that I would act as her voice. She is risking her life by being in contact with people in Israel, but it is so important to her that others hear what is really happening in Iran.”
AMRANI HAS been broadcasting his radio show for over a decade, and believes he has around half a million listeners among Iranians, most of whom support the opposition to the Iranian regime. 
“We’ve received videos of people who are bleeding after they participated in protests,” says Amrani. “These people went out into the streets to protest the lies, corruption, crimes, high cost of living and lack of freedom for women in Iran. There are many Persian-language radio shows being broadcast in Iran, but most people don’t trust the information disseminated on most of them. For 40 years, they’ve been brainwashed to believe that Israel is the enemy. Thankfully, nowadays some Iranians are finally able to view Israel as a safe and reliable country.
“They expect the State of Israel to help them because, in their opinion, Netanyahu and Trump have the most to gain if the Iranian regime is overthrown,” continues Amrani. “Many of the Iranian citizens I correspond with wish that Israel and the US would come to their aid and prevent the situation in Iran from deteriorating even further. One person even asked me to call Netanyahu and ask him to help the Iranian people, as if I have prime minister’s phone number on my speed dial! Another time, someone called me, saying she had specific intel regarding missiles aimed at Israel.”
FARISA DANIEL, together with help from three friends, broadcasts a TV channel called Israel Pars TV from Holon 24 hours a day.
Daniel claims that her station has three million viewers, about 200,000 of which live in Iran. Other viewers who live in the US and Europe watch the channel by satellite. Daniel delivers the daily news in Persian every day at 5 p.m. She talks about current events taking place in Israel and in Iran. 
“The situation in Iran has become untenable. The government simply kills civilians in the streets and no one can rise up against it,” explains Daniel. 
“Lots of people have agreed to talk on our program and we receive loads of messages on Instagram, Facebook and Telegram. They’re running out of food and the entire economy is collapsing. You can see from the pictures they send that there are always lots of soldiers on the streets, and people are always scared they’ll get killed if they open their mouth. They say that all these years they’ve been brainwashed, and now they’re just starting to realize how corrupt the Iranian regime really is. Now that they have nothing left to lose, they’re going out and publicly revolting.”
Over the years, Iranians have started to believe that the things Daniel is reporting are trustworthy.
“Even though they know they can be put in jail for communicating with us, more and more Iranian citizens have gotten in touch with us to tell us their stories and have their voice heard. One young Iranian woman wrote me to tell me how her family, who are radical Muslims, don’t ever let her leave the house. She told me that one of her family members rapes her, and she doesn’t have anyone who can help her. I don’t really have a way of helping her, but at least I can lend her an attentive ear.”
LIRAZ CHARHI, an Israeli singer and actor whose parents grew up in Iran, was recently in Athens to film a series in which she plays the role of a Mossad agent stationed in Tehran. Charhi, who is very popular in Iran, says that she’s in touch with many Iranian fans who tell her what it’s like to take part in protests on the streets of Iran. 
“I’m in touch with many singers in Iran,” says Charhi, “and I’m recording an album right now with a few Iranian artists. For a few days last month, there was no Internet connection in Iran, and this was the last straw that convinced many people that they need to leave Iran now. I get lots of requests for help in getting a visa. I’m so amazed by the strength some of my women artists friends display in their battle to be given rights. I believe that if a revolution will finally take place, it will be due to the courageous Persian women. Some of my friends sing in the underground metro stations about their pain and try to encourage others to tell the truth. All I can really do from here is to support them and increase awareness by posting on social media.
“One day during the recent filming of the series in Athens, I received a message from one of my friends in Iran, that read: “Leave Tel Aviv now – Iran is going to bomb Israel.” I felt panicked and didn’t know what to do with this information. So I immediately called home and my family told me that Soleimani had just been assassinated. Unfortunately, I’m losing hope that the situation in Iran will ever improve, and I’m very concerned for the lives of the entire Iranian people.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.