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Iranian Press: Reading between the Lines | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian media different newspapers

Shortly after the “liberation” of Iraq in 2003, the CIA set up a “listening post” in Dubai with the mission to monitor radio and TV broadcasts from the Islamic Republic and read newspapers published in Iran. To that end they hired a number of young journalists from inside Iran and set them to work after some training, mostly in London.

What the Americans didn’t know was that the people they had recruited in the Islamic Republic had been formed in a culture in which journalism is as much about hiding things as revealing them. They also didn’t know that if you were to read the daily Jumhuri Islami , for example, the way you read the Washington Post, you are bound to end up confused.

The Iranian press as it has developed under the mullahs cannot be understood in the two traditional ways applied to “free” or “unfree” societies.In “free” societies where ”press freedom” is highly valued though not always respected, the press is divided across political sensibilities and socio-economic interests within the classical “left-and-right” duality.

Thus, for many Americans, The New York Times, for example, is regarded as a paper of “the left” because it supports the Democrat Party. However, to a Western European the same paper appears as a right-wing mouthpiece for the American capitalist elite. At the other end of the spectrum, during the heyday of the Soviet Union, it was not hard to identify Pravda as the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party in Moscow.

When we come to the Iranian press, however, none of those classical rules apply. Iran cannot be treated as a “free society” if only because critics of the system, even from within the ruling elite, risk being executed or at least sent to prison. But nor is Iran a totalitarian society, as was the old Soviet Union or is Cuba today. There is no one-party rule because there are no political parties, and thus no “mouthpiece” of the Central Committee. Instead we have what one might call a system of ideological feudalism in which different factions fight over power like many barracudas over bait in a fishpond.

The Islamic Republic’s ideological feudal chiefs are united in their determination to protect the system and prevent the advent of pluralism in Iran. None is prepared to allow “outsiders”, known in Persian as “gahyr-khodi” to secure any share in decision-making. But those who are “our own”, “khodi” in Persian, enjoy a degree of freedom that is unthinkable in genuine totalitarian systems such as North Korea, Zimbabwe or even the People’s Republic of China. Add to that techniques such as “taqiyeh” (dissimulation), “kitman” (hiding), “istitar” (curtaining-off) and “khalibandi” (subterfuge), all promoted and practiced by mullahs for over 500 years, and the average reader would have special training in reading the Iranians press as produced under Khomeinism.

The Iranian reader has to learn to read between the lines. For example, consider these lines from the daily Resalat last Thursday: The {Iranian} year that is drawing to an end was a year of recession, unemployment and lack of improvement in the atmosphere of enterprise and business. Nevertheless, the hope is that {President} Hassan Rouhani will fulfil his promises during the year that is left of his term.”

On the same day the daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect the views of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, devoted its editorial to what it claimed was “the failure of Rouhani’s economic policy.” The paper went on to speculate that Rouhani might be forced to “hand over the presidency” in next year’s election.

The same theme is relayed in an editorial by the daily Watan Emruz: “The Rouhani government’s economic balance sheet is simple: it is illustrated by lack of planning, chaos and numerous suspicious angles.”

The average Iranian reader would immediately notice that the three dailies do not cite a single piece of evidence regarding Rouhani’s “economic failure.” What is clear is that they are preparing opinion for an attempt to unseat him. The reason? Again, reading between the lines, is that the “smiling mullah” has played the role he was supposed to play by fudging the Iranian nuclear issue with the help of the Obama administration in Washington.

Preparing the ground for pushing Rouhani into the background, the daily Jawan, published by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, informs its readers that “the Islamic Republic’s roadmap for the coming years” will be unveiled by Khamenei in his Now-Ruz address to the nation to be delivered in the shrine of Imam Reza in Mash’had. Reading between the lines the message is: Rouhani is an actor playing president; the real power is in the hands of the “Supreme Guide”.

The newspapers controlled by the Rafsanjani faction, of which Rouhani is a member, cannot openly challenge that analysis. What they can do is remind everyone that the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction has been strengthened by the results of the recent elections that gave it a higher profile in the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Consultative Majlis.

Thus, the daily Etemad, for example, included Rafsanjani’s warning that “ignoring the will of the people” will have “dire consequences.” The reader is not told who is “ignoring the will of the people” or what those “consequences” might be. He has to read between the lines to see that the message is addressed to Khamenei with threat of social unrest.

Apart from reading between the liens, the Iranian reader needs to learn a special vocabulary to decipher the press. For example, he must learn that the phrase “chiefs of sedition” refers to former President Muhammad Khatami and former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi. There is a ban on mentioning either of them by name.

The phrase “New York Boys” refers to Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Muhammad Nahavandian and his protégé Muhammad-Jawad Zarif, the Foreign Minister among others high officials reported to have “Green Cards” or permanent residency permits in the US.

At the other end of the spectrum, readers of the daily Iran, the government’s official newspaper now controlled by Rouhani, have learned that the president’s references to “the nouveau-riches”, “ the professional liars”, “ the deviationists” and “ the adventure-seekers” are meant to designate leaders of the rival factions.

Since the Iranian papers are not allowed to cover major stories themselves and in an independent manner, they are left to carry rival versions that offer little more than an oblique view of sensitive issues. For example, the factional feud around the nuclear issue has been covered while the nuclear issue itself is never touched.

The same is true of other key issues of domestic and foreign policy, for example the fight over how to define political crimes, who ordered house-arrest for Mussavi and former Majlis Speaker Mahdi Karrubi, who decided to ban women’s voices in public, why Iran is sustaining such level of casualties in Syria where we have no national interest, and why Iran is spending large sums buying semi-obsolete weapons’ systems from Russia.

Reading between the lines, what matters to the ruling elite in Tehran today, is hanging onto power for as long as possible and preventing rivals from securing a bigger slice of the cake.