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Iran: media and the message.

Changes at the top of Iranian television and radio point to a resurgence of cultural paranoia and a reaffirmation of the influence wielded by militants within the clerical hierarchy. Coinciding with the reiteration of the notorious fatwa against Salman Ruhsdie, Iran is clearly telling the West that it is no mood for compromise. Peter Feuilherade reports on Iran's siege mentality, and in an accompanying article assesses the prospects for improved relations with Iraq.

IRAN HAS replaced Mohammed Hashemi, President Rafsanjani's younger brother, as head of radio and TV broadcasts, in a step interpreted as a concession to the conservative clergy. Hashemi, who held the post for 13 years, was closely associated with his brother's pragmatic policies and viewed as a relative liberal prepared to bend the rules. He had allowed Iranian radio to play bland Western pop music and television to show foreign films, albeit heavily censored. He had also tried to widen the appeal of state TV and radio away from religious affairs and boring programmes on the achievements of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Hashemi was succeeded as head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) by Ali Larijani, the minister of Islamic culture and guidance since 1992, who is thought likely to adopt a more hardline media policy. Larijani's appointment, for a five- year term, was announced in a decree last February by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has direct control over IRIB.

The decree said the "general situation in the country demands that |radio and television~ adopt a new policy in line with the overall progress of the Islamic republic. It should give priority to the quality of programmes, while quantity should come next."

One of IRIB's main tasks would continue to be to confront what Khamenei termed "the propaganda and cultural onslaught" of the United States and its allies. He enjoined Iran's broadcast media to avoid "banal and sensual" music, and to produce arts programmes with "social, political and ethical content". Khamenei also dissolved IRIB's policy-making council, granting Larijani total control over decision-making. The new IRIB head was also appointed a member of the High Council of Cultural Revolution, which lays down guidelines for cultural activity in Iran.

A few hours before his resignation was announced, Hashemi had met Khamenei, who thanked him for his efforts over the years but pointed to "shortcomings" in radio and television, and urged greater vigilance against "enemy propaganda."

A Majlis committee report on IRIB last November listed charges ranging from embezzlement to spreading un-Islamic ideas, showing too many Western cartoons and allowing members of opposition groups to infiltrate television. Hashemi retorted that he had only been following guidelines set by the late Ayatollah Khamenei and his successor Khamenei, and accused his critics of "stone-age thinking".

The replacement of Hashemi was viewed as a move by Khamenei to appease the conservative Islamic right wing, whose support in the majlis is essential at a time of economic and political crisis.

Sources in Tehran said the move might appear to be aimed against Rafsanjani, but they doubt whether Khamenei would have acted without consulting the president. "They both need the conservatives at this time. Rafsanjani may well have sacrificed his brother for the sake of political expediency," a Tehran commentator said.

Hashemi's departure -- to a new post as first deputy foreign minister -- represents a victory for those who fear the West's perceived cultural encroachment and for the critics of Iranian reformists' attempts to offer more tempting alternatives for the country's youth, as exemplified in the recent launch of a new TV entertainment channel.

Equally contentious has been the opening of several thousand outlets supervised by the Islamic Guidance Ministry, where Iranians can rent video cassettes of acceptable Western-made films, in a bid to reduce dependence on the thriving illicit market. Under Ali Larijani, such cultural flexibility is likely to disappear from Iranian broadcasting.

Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, speaking at Qom Friday prayers, called for radio and TV under Larijani to become "an open university for moulding virtuous citizens". The changes at the top of Iran's broadcasting system coincide with the lifting of a ban on the purchase of video cassette recorders imposed after the 1979 revolution, and a statement by a culture ministry official that video cameras and recorders could be imported and would also be manufactured locally. Imports and sales of video tapes, however, will continue to be strictly controlled and subject to government censorship.

The state firm Pars Electric now hopes to produce up to 2,000 VCRs a day for the domestic market. At the same time Tehran police announced that more than 50 satellite TV dishes had been seized since the beginning of 1994, although their use or ownership is not officially banned, and satellite dishes can be bought in Tehran for about $500 apiece.

The new minister of Islamic culture and guidance, Mostafa Mirsalim, a former adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei when the latter was president between 1981 and 1989, was commended to majlis deputies as a "veteran revolutionary" by President Rafsanjani. Even before being formally approved in his new post, Mirsalim vowed to launch a purge against what he called "the corrupt elements of the Western arts in Iran".

He told the Iranian news agency: "The intellectual destruction of the Islamic Republic, as well as the discovery of the ways and means to penetrate the revolutionary and Muslim people of Iran, are among the long-term programmes of the enemies of Islam." Contemporary Iranian artists had to purge the "ugly stains" that existed because of the advent of "corrupt elements" of Western culture in the last century, Mirsalim added.

President Rafsanjani, who insists that the changes in Iranian broadcasting and at the culture ministry were not politically motivated, has indicated that he will not be seeking changes to the constitution that would allow him to stand for a third term.

The president's critics, on the other hand, view them as a consequence of the opposition Rafsanjani faces from an array of factions including majlis deputies, the Council of Guardians, the bazaaris and the supporters of the religious seminaries, as well as the armed forces and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps where support for Ayatollah Khamenei is strong.

Rafsanjani's foes also point to the growing popular dissatisfaction with his economic policies in the past two years, and claim that the balance of power has shifted in favour of Ayatollah Khamenei, to the president's detriment.

Iranians were also sceptical of official accounts of the apparent assassination attempt against Rafsanjani during the revolution's 15th anniversary celebrations in Tehran in early February.

Although officials initially played down the shooting as "a childish affair" and the work of a lone delinquent, they later described the incident as "a premeditated plot" to undermine the Islamic Republic, and announced the arrests of 20 people with alleged counter-revolutionary links. The newspaper Salam, run by the religious activist, Musavi Khoiniha who was one of the leaders of the American embassy siege in 1979, said the so-called assassination explanation left many questions unanswered.

In another bid to channel growing domestic dissatisfaction, the government in February approved the formation of some 80 political and professional groups, out of about 400 organisations which had applied for permits from the Interior Ministry.

Last October, Ali Mohammad Besharati, the minister of the interior, said he was prepared to license all groups which accepted "the principles of the Islamic Republic's system". But no major opposition faction was evident among the first batch of groups licensed.

Iran is anxious not to be driven into greater isolation by American-led efforts to persuade the United States' allies that several aspects of Iranian policy are cause for international action. Washington lists its areas of concern as Tehran's alleged interest in nuclear weapons, its efforts to build a conventional weapons capability that could threaten its neighbours, its opposition to the Middle East peace process, its subversion of governments friendly to the United States, and its sponsorship of what Washington views as terrorism.

But despite US efforts to block Iran from renegotiating its foreign debt of $25bn, Iran and Germany agreed in late February to reschedule some $2.6bn owed to German companies. The payments, due this year, will now be made between 1996 and 2000, the deputy foreign minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, said after talks in Germany.

Another obstacle to Iran having full and normal international relations is its insistence that there can be no reprieve for Salman Rushdie from the fatwa issued in 1989 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini for the British author's book The Satanic Verses, which allegedly insults Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.

The Iranian news agency said on the fifth anniversary of the fatwa that the Rushdie case was not a national issue, but a cause that had been taken up by more than 50 Muslim countries. Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, head of the 15th Khordad Foundation, which has offered a bounty of over two million dollars for Rushdie's head, said the time was right to kill him, and suggested that supporters of Rushdie who campaigned for the lifting of the fatwa also deserved to be punished, although he did not spell out what form that might take.

Britain's prime minister John Major urged Tehran to revoke the fatwa or face continued international isolation, France described the death threat to Rushdie as against the law and "intolerable", and the Dutch foreign minister summoned Iran's ambassador in The Hague to protest against Tehran's statement that the fatwa still stood. The majlis Speaker, Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, responded by warning Western countries not to spoil their relations with Iran over Rushdie, whom he described as "wicked" and "an apostate". He repeated the accusation that the West was using the Rushdie affair as "a weapon" to put pressure on the Islamic Republic.

President Rafsanjani, announcing that he would not stand for a third presidential term, added that he, "as a soldier of the Islamic revolution, will serve the Islamic system in another trench". Despite the ousting of his brother as broadcasting supremo, the president's grip on power remains firm.

But with Iran beset by rising inflation, high prices, unemployment and a huge foreign debt, and with no end in prospect to falling oil prices, his priority must be to halt the damage to the economy. The anticipated social reforms which many Iranians hoped for after Rafsanjani's presidential victory in 1992 seem an unlikely prospect now.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Feuilherade, Peter
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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