The Magazine

Radio Free Iran

Down with music. Up with ideas.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By S. ENDERS WIMBUSH
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Iran looms intractable on America's radar, while the Bush administration casts about for nonmilitary weapons to use against it. Although President Bush insists that we are in a war of ideas with Iran, he has yet to unlimber some of America's most potent instruments to fight it. Chief among these should be the Persian-language broadcasts of Radio Farda. But, like most of America's international broadcasters, the station has fallen into the public diplomacy trap of advocating for America rather than stimulating debate within the targeted society.

Originally intended by Congress to operate as Radio Free Iran, the station was abruptly morphed into Radio Farda ("Tomorrow" in Persian) in 2002. It now broadcasts chiefly music and American popular culture aimed at Iran's kids. Mostly gone is the "ideas" menu--history, culture, religion, economics, law, human rights, labor, business, critical thinking--employed to great effect during the Cold War by its parent organization, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, whose intended listeners were critical elites and the populations that supported them.

To become an effective instrument in the war of ideas, Radio Farda should be completely overhauled, not just tinkered with. Six strategies are required, all of them based on proven RFE/RL choices and methods.

Strategy One: Question the regime's legitimacy. Iran's noxious regime will survive so long as it retains legitimacy among those most likely to seek to change it. America's communications strategy should chip away at this legitimacy by describing and analyzing the nature of the regime from many angles.

It would contest the regime's claim to Islamic legitimacy. Direct involvement in politics by Islamic clerics has traditionally been frowned upon in Iran, a point made frequently by many Iranian theologians and ayatollahs.

It would discredit the clerics as sources of moral authority. Pervasive corruption at all levels of government is public knowledge, and it is increasingly associated with the ruling clerical establishment in the mind of the public.

And a sound strategy would rebut the regime's anti-Westernism, which is intensifying as a source of its legitimacy. It would emphasize the great historical attachments of Iran to the West and, particularly, the mutual, and mutually beneficial, interpenetration of Persian and Western culture. The aim must be to deny traction to anti-Westernizing influences.

Strategy Two: Highlight the leadership's disunity. Iran's regime is at its strongest when its leaders are united. A targeted communications strategy would highlight disagreements among leaders that we know to exist, underlining divisions, straining friendships, and endangering alliances. It would give special attention to those who break ranks. (Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that his rise to power in the crumbling Soviet Union was due in large part to Radio Liberty's intensive reporting of his activities.) The strategy would focus on revealing controversies that may not exist openly but that are endemic to the regime's view of the world and the policies by which it articulates its vision.

Strategy Three: Highlight threats to Iran's culture. For Iranians of most stripes, the sanctity and salience of their historic culture, and its preeminence among world cultures, is of high importance. A successful communications strategy would describe how this preeminence is endangered and in decline. Examples of mediocre cultural products (in literature, music, poetry, art, films), made more mediocre by Iran's isolation from the rest of the world and the intellectual straitjacket enforced by the regime, could be discussed to make a powerful point: Iran's historic culture is deteriorating in Iran itself, with the only advances taking place outside the mother country.

During the Cold War, Radio Liberty's strategy of stressing the gains of Russian culture outside Russia--for example through movie reviews and readings by noted authors in exile--had a sobering impact on its listeners. Iran, where virtually everything is viewed through the prism of culture, is an even more resonant milieu for such a strategy.