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The Lexicon of Iran’s Media Machine
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Iranians look at newspapers displayed on the ground outside a kiosk in Tehran on November 25, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE)

Iranians look at newspapers displayed on the ground outside a kiosk in Tehran on November 25, 2013. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

Abu Dhabi, Asharq Al-Awsat—State media counts as one of the most significant tools used by governments to carry out and promote their policies, both internally and to foreign countries. The world at the turn of the 20th century witnessed major political developments that prompted governments to resort to their media arms in order to achieve their objectives and promote their ideologies. Governments therefore often assign the media a significant role in shaping their strategies, especially given its crucial role in shaping public opinion. Inevitably, this approach risks placing public opinion entirely at the service of the authorities, and results in the dissemination of information for the purpose of “molding” the vox populi and ultimately controlling the behavior of citizens.

Those following Iranian media will notice the Iranian regime’s employment of studied propaganda strategies to spread its ideology both on the domestic and international levels. This strategy is characterized by the employment of a certain diction. Naturally, the media plays a highly significant role in furthering a regime’s policies, and when that regime is of an ideological bent, it will seek to consolidate, control and shape the role of the media both domestically and internationally.

In the past, communist regimes bound up their interests in ideological considerations, a practice they adopted especially in the service of their foreign policies. Closer to home, a key feature of their domestic propaganda was the creation of a “reconciliatory process” that yoked ideological and nationalistic considerations. Later, proselytizing this ideology became the pillar on which these regimes based their thought. However, this end cannot be immediately achieved. Instead, it requires a long-term plan where repeating and intensifying the message is of great significance. By continually repeating the main points of government propaganda, the message, even if misleading, would eventually get through to the masses, becoming inculcated en masse as a matter of course.

Propaganda, then, is a political and ideological tool of persuasion whose danger lies in distorting the language of media and forcing a certain point of view on recipients under the cover of reporting news, turning media outlets from institutions that help shape public opinion to propaganda mills. Political media, together with political discourse, is an effective tool in spreading propaganda that in turn promotes the ideology and the messages it wants to send.

Bringing back the empire

The Iranian mindset bases its view of the region and the world on a historical, cultural and religious legacy. The form and content of Iranian discourse varies according to the circumstances. For example, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad viewed the Persian civilization when addressing the region—particularly the Gulf states—as the effective and dominant regional civilization. However, Mohammad Khatami, another former Iranian president, argued that the Persian civilization was one of three civilizations in the region, including the Roman and the Ancient Egyptian, capable of achieving civilizational dialogue between the Middle East’s disparate religious, ethnic and national factions.

Indeed, those observing Iranian affairs will notice some common factors within Iranian discourse, despite both its intellectual and political discrepancies. Concerns over Iran’s historical and regional mold are inherent in the Iranian mindset. Only how those issues are put into action, and what tools are used to execute them, differ.

These concerns have left an indelible impact on the media and the political discourse in Iran. While the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran during 1925–1979, had strong diplomatic ties with the United States and later Israel, things completely changed after it was toppled by the “Islamic Republic” in 1979. The relationship between Tehran and Washington then turned from one of warm friendship to one of mistrust and confrontation, something which was clearly reflected in the Iranian media and the political discourse in the country, with terms such as “Great Satan” emerging to describe the US and its policies toward Iran.

Ideology greatly influences the makeup of political discourse in any given country. In Iran, it is the ideology of the ruling religious current that has impacted the political discourse and media. The religious orientations of Twelver Shi’ite Islam injected an added dose of ideology to the political discourse in Iran. The rulers adopted a strategy of amalgamating the cultural and historical legacy and prevalent religious ideology.

Branding the revolution as “Islamic”

Religious, liberal and leftist currents were the three main forces that contributed to the success of the 1979 revolution against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. However, when the religious current, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, became the most powerful of the three, it proceeded to dominate the scene by imposing its ideology on the new nascent post-revolutionary regime, pushing aside—indeed purging—the other two currents. At this point, the term “Islamic” began to be applied to different aspects of life in Iran in an effort to strengthen the ideology of the religious current that promoted the revolution as an “Islamic Revolution.” Khomeini said: “We staged the revolution for the sake of Islam, not nationalism or democracy. Our martyrs sacrificed their lives for Islam and not for anything else.”

By looking closely at the term, “Islamic Republic,” which was given to the regime that replaced that of the Shah, one realizes that the adjective “Islamic” was used by the religious current in an effort to prevent liberal and leftist currents from rising to power. No sooner had the new regime been announced that the usage of the term “Islamic” was used to describe several state institutions. For example, the Iranian parliament, which was previously known as the National Council, became the Islamic Shura Council. The practice was also extended to cultural institutions. After things settled down in Iran and the religious current tightened its grip on state institutions, it took on the liberal and leftist strongholds in universities. It employed the term “revolution” to describe its crackdown on universities under the pretext that they were “Westernizing” the youth by promoting Western ideas. Therefore, the new rulers led what became known as the Cultural Revolution to purge academia of liberal and leftist influences, and turn it into a suitable environment for Islamic learning. Following the unrest that accompanied Iran’s tenth presidential elections, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected as president, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the government to reconsider the Humanities curriculum at Iranian universities so that they fall in line with the country’s “Islamic” orientations, in what became known as the Third Cultural Revolution.

Enter the media

The importance of the media and its role can also be seen in the direct linking of the official state broadcasting authority, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)—prior to 1979, the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT)—with the Supreme Leader and his powers. Article 110 of the Iranian constitution outlines the functions and powers of the Supreme Leader and confirms that this includes the appointment of the head of the IRIB, as well as his dismissal and the acceptance of his resignation. We can add to this the emergence of numerous media outlets affiliated to the regime, and in addition to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) we saw a number of publications also emerge like Jomhouri Eslami newspaper and news agencies and websites that served as the mouthpiece of the regime and its apparatus.

Among the examples that were promoted by media outlets affiliated to the Iranian regime, and which are continuing to be promoted, were terms like “monafegan” (hypocrites) and “mofsed filarz” (those who spread corruption throughout the earth). While Khomeini called the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (the Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK) the “symbol of the hypocrites,” accusing them of claiming to be Muslims but in reality working against Islam, until regime officials began to repeat this term and use it in the media. This led to the neutralization of the members of this group and their removal from the political scene as being among those who “spread corruption throughout the earth.” The usage of this term continues until today although it is not limited to members of the MEK but has been expanded to include former regime figures, even those who held high-level government positions.

After the events that accompanied Ahmadinejad’s re-election, a wave of protests broke out rejecting the results, led by presidential candidates like Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister during the 1980s, and Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliament speaker. Iran’s security authorities responded with force to eliminate the protests, with officials describing what was happening as “fitna” (sedition) and labeling both Mousavi and Karroubi as the “leaders of the fitna.” This detracted from the legitimacy of the protests, which were described as a “conspiracy to overthrow the government.” Thus, the term “monafeg” returned, along with the emergence of terms such as “fitna ’88,” which was the fitna that took place in the year 1388, according to the solar Hijri calendar, coinciding with 2009 . After the re-election of Ahmadinejad, those who participated in these protests were called “supporters of fitna ” and considered to be outside of, and an anathema to, the regime.

Also, we can point to some terms with religious dimensions such as “jihad.” For example, the Agriculture Ministry was renamed the Ministry of Jihad-e Agriculture, while the Ministry of Reconstruction was named Ministry of Jihad-e Reconstruction. The term “resistance economy” also became one of the important terms in Iran’s media strategy. After successive international sanctions were imposed on the Iranian regime as a result of its nuclear program, human rights record, missile program, and other issues, the regime began to use the term “resistance economy” as a powerful tool to confront these sanctions, which Abbas Ghaedrahmat, a member of the Iranian parliament’s Social Committee, described as “the way out of these unjust sanctions.”

Enemies of the state

The sectarian and nationalist orientation of the Tehran regime is even clearer to see in terms of its regional media strategy. To read the political discourse and the employment of language here, we must start by looking at the Iranian understanding of the region which is based on the belief that Iran is the “major power in the region.” There are many statements from Iranian media, be they military or political in nature, which aim to promote this view of Iran being the dominant power in the Gulf, often implying that there is a need for it to participate, or indeed lead, any security arrangements for the region. This view, which recalls the Persian Achaemenid and Sassanid empires (of 550–330 BCE and 224–651 CE, respectively), can be summarized in a statement made by Iranian military adviser and ex-commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Yahya Rahim Safavi: “Iran’s influential power stretches from the axis of Iran, Iraq and Syria to the Mediter¬ranean, and this is the third time [following the empires of the Achaemenids and the Sassanids] that Iran’s influence has reached the Mediterranean.”

Reviewing some of the examples of the way the media deploys language, the first thing that comes to mind is the insistence on the usage of the term “Persian Gulf” for the Arabian Gulf. This counts as a very important term in the Iranian media. The issue does not stop there, however, but comes within the framework of a vision for the Gulf as a whole. During a visit to Iran’s southern coast, former president Ahmadinejad claimed it was only natural for the “dominant civilization” (that is, the Iranian one) to have the most influence even on the names of places and that this influence should not be limited to the borders of the region but should even reach the Indian sub-continent.

This view means the Iranian regime reacts strongly to any attempt to distort—according to its perspective—the name of the Gulf region—to the extent that airlines that employ terms other than “Persian Gulf” are not allowed to fly to Tehran. Iranian Navy Commander Rr. Adm. Habibollah Sayyari said: “The Persian Gulf has always been Persian, it is Persian, and it will remain Persian forever.”

Similarly, Minister of Intelligence Hojjat-e Islam Mahmoud Alavi, said that: “The Persian Gulf has always been Persian and will remain so forever. The response of our people to the liars [i.e. those who use the wrong term] will be overwhelming.” The term “Persian Gulf” is much more than just a name for the Iranian regime. This represents Iran’s obsession with its presence and influence in the region.

When it comes to the regimes and people of the Gulf, the official Iranian media has also been keen to deliver other cheap shots. Media outlets often use the term “A’arab” instead of “Arabs” to refer to Arabs from the Gulf states, and the use of this word has become more frequent recently in light of the pressures facing the Iranian regime. A recent example of this came during the recent negotiations with Western powers on Iran’s nuclear program. After the announcement of the framework agreement Tehran-based Iranian Diplomacy ran an article with the headline “The A’arab of the Persian Gulf welcome the Iranian–US deal.” The term “A’arab” is, of course, a derogatory one, used to refer to Bedouin Arabs, or the “Arabs of the desert.” The term also has Qur’anic pedigree, and its mention in the Muslim holy book has a distinctly negative tincture: “The A’arab are the worst in unbelief and hypocrisy” (Qur’an, Surat Al-Tawbah 129. 97). The use of the term thus feeds into the negative stereotype of Gulf Arabs which the Iranian regime wishes to promulgate, as well as Iranian ideas of supremacy over their Arab neighbors, which date back to the time of the Persian Sassanid Empire of the 7th century CE, which was routed by the “backward” Arabs during what later became known as the Arab Conquests.

The “A’arab” label was also recently used by the Mehr News Agency, which like Iranian Diplomacy chose to replace “Arabian Gulf” with “Persian Gulf” in its headline, “China boosts economic ties with the A’arab of the Persian Gulf, Israel.” In another case, IRNA used the following: “The EU seeks to form anti-terror coalition with the A’arab.” One should note here the context behind the headline. Iran is clearly displeased with not being invited to be part of the coalition, and it must know that it was the Gulf states who would have insisted on this. It also fears the initiative could have negative consequences for its main strategic ally in the region, Bashar Al-Assad.

Another term used by the Iranian media to denigrate the Gulf states is “sheikh neshin” (Sheikhdoms). The term “Sheikhdoms”—both in English, and its Arab and Persian equivalents—was often used to describe the areas now occupied by Gulf states before they actually became recognized internationally as countries in the modern sense. It therefore fits well with the Iranian media’s preoccupation with labeling the Gulf states as “backward.” This idiosyncratic choice of nomenclature also extends to individual Gulf states, with the term “nizam Khalifi” (“Khalifite regime”) used to describe the ruling Al Khalifa family in Bahrain, whom Iran’s media outlets claim do not really represent the people of Bahrain. There are other attempts by the Iranian media to delegitimize the Bahraini regime through linguistic means. This also extends to other terms not necessarily related to the Royal Family at all. For example, Bahrain’s police and security services are often referred to as “efsaran amniti Al Khalifa” (the Khalifa clan’s security officers), or “niruhai regime Bahrain” (the forces of the Bahraini entity). This “entity” appellation was also used in a recent headline from the Mehr News Agency: “The latest moves by the Khalifite entity against Bahrain’s religious scholars and leaders”. The term “entity,” of course, is common currency in Iran when referring to Israel—as “regime Sahyounisti,” the “Zionist entity.” (The term is even extended to other regimes Tehran is not keen on, such as Egypt’s, where the current ruling administration of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is referred to as “regime hakim bar Masr,” or “the entity ruling Egypt”; Hosni Mubarak’s regime earned the title “regime Mubarak,” or the “Mubarakite entity.”) The use of this term for Bahrain can be much more easily understood if one takes into account how Tehran views Bahrain: as “Iran’s 14th province,” to quote the country’s former parliament speaker and minister of interior Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri. Iran also considers the presence of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain an “eshghal” (occupation), and Saudi Arabia an “eshghalkar [occupier] that must leave Bahrain as soon as possible,” to quote Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security in the Iranian parliament.

Events, my dear boy, events

Naturally, the Iranian media also presents recent events in the region entirely through Tehran’s idiosyncratic lens. The Arab Spring, for example, is referred to in many outlets as the “Bidari Islami” (Islamic Awakening), with the same outlets claiming the protests that shook the Arab world in 2011 were inspired by Khomeini and Iran’s so-called Islamic Revolution of 1979. “The way of Imam Khomeini is a model for the Islamic Awakening,” former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said. It was this view of the countries of the Arab Spring that drove Tehran’s post-2011 policies toward a number of Arab countries. At the time, the regime in Tehran held several conferences on how it would deal with these countries following their “Islamic Awakenings,” with a specialized government body set up to help draft official state policy toward them. A number of the conferences held discussed in particular the effect of the Iranian revolution and Khomeinist thought on the Arab uprisings of 2011, with one of the conferences titled “The Islamic Awakenings and the Political Thought of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei.” Following suit as always was the Iranian media, which attempted to give credence to the idea. The Fars News Agency ran what became a typical headline for a news article covering one of these conferences: “Sheikh Al-Zaghmout: The Islamic Awakening is a product of Imam Khomeini’s historic movement” (quoting Palestinian Sheikh Mohamed Nimr Ahmed Al-Zaghmout).

From here we can move on to what the Iranian media refers to as the “Mehwar Mogawamat” (the Axis of Resistance), one which of course revolves around Iran, but also includes the Alawite regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, and some Palestinian Sunni groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The following headline appeared on one website affiliated with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Basij militia units: “Iran forms the axis of the Islamic Awakening and resistance movements around the world.”

Among the other terms used in Iran’s political discourse are ones related to its own view of Islam, and what it feels are foreign, and toxic, elements entering the faith from, of course, the usual suspects. The term “Eslam-e Nabee Mohamadi (The pure Islam of Muhammad), which presumably is the one espoused by the regime in Tehran, is thus contrasted with the “Eslam-e Amrika (Americanized Islam) of other parts of the Islamic world. Shi’ism itself is not free from this malignant foreign influence and so we sometimes also see Tashyee’ Englisi (English Shi’ism). Tasanon Amrikai (American Sunnism) is also added to the mix. In an indication of how Tehran views the current state of the religion of Islam around the world, one prominent Iranian MP said recently that “the Tashyee’ Englisi and the Tasanon Amrikai are both leading to the division of the entire Islamic Ummah,” or global Islamic community.

As soon as Operation Decisive Storm began in Yemen against the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Iranian regime began to point its media weaponry against the operation in a bid to save its Houthi allies. The persistence of the Houthis—an ostensibly Shi’ite movement—and their attempts to take control of all of Yemen’s territory, as well as the successive Iranian statements of support for the group, contributed to exposing the extent to which the Iranian regime has invested in expanding its influence in the region and what it has achieved in this regard. Following comments by prominent Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, who said that “Iran’s real borders . . . extend to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in southern Lebanon,” MP Alireza Zakani boasted that Iran now rules four Arab capitals, numbering among them the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, which has been under Houthi control since September, 2014. While, as is the case with the Arab Spring, some Iranian officials even claimed that what is currently happening in Yemen is a product and extension of its so-called Islamic Revolution.

Operation Decisive Storm eloquently revealed Tehran’s linguistic media strategy. So, rather than saying that the “Arab coalition” was behind the military operation, Iran’s media described the offensive as a “Saudi attack” in an attempt to give it sectarian overtones. It went further, claiming that this “Saudi attack” on Yemen was carried out in order to enforce a “US agenda” in the region and “serve the interests of the Zionist entity.”

Iran’s Al-Alam News Network—an Arabic-language news channel broadcast from Iran and owned by state media—even quoted Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a member of the Iranian Assembly of Experts as saying: “The crimes of the House of Saud will change the regional situation.” While a news story published on Al-Alam’s website read: “In honor of the Iranian pilot who confronted Saudi air piracy.” This report dealt with an incident in which an Iranian pilot attempted to illegally land at Sana’a airport. The usage of such language and terminology is ongoing in an attempt to put pressure on the Arab coalition against the Houthi rebels.

As conflict throughout the Middle East continues to worsen, Iran’s media machine is moving ahead at full throttle in an attempt to influence the turn of events. The language of Iran’s media reveals the narrative Iran’s leaders want to project onto both its citizens and the wider region in order to mold the reality on the ground to its whims.