US & Iran: Are Farsi-language broadcasts helping?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Mar 10 15:02:14 UTC 2007

The Washington Times

Are Farsi-language broadcasts helping?

Published March 9, 2007

Today, as Washington grapples with the threats posed by Iranian support
for terrorism and efforts to develop nuclear weapons, it appears that
American policy-makers are being forced to choose between very bad
options: 1) taking military action against Iranian nuclear sites and other
regime targets, or 2) continuing to push for passage of largely
unenforceable U.N. resolutions and hoping that if the regime develops
nuclear weapons, we would somehow be able to use some form of
"containment" to deal with the problem.  We find ourselves in this
untenable position today due in part to our neglect of alternatives such
as the development of radio stations oriented towards taking the American
message directly to the Iranian people. In his position as ranking member
on the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Information,
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has made it his mission to reform
what he views as a largely dysfunctional system of broadcasting to Iran.
In a letter to President Bush last month, Mr. Coburn made a powerful case
that Radio Farda, which broadcasts music and other entertainment programs
to Iran, and the Voice of America's Farsi-language service "may actually
be harming American interests rather than helping."

     As chairman of the subcommittee last year, Mr. Coburn held a hearing
on the Iranian nuclear question, in which lawmakers heard testimony from
Amirabbas Fakhravar, an Iranian dissident who wants the United States to
publicly support regime change in his country. Imprisoned in 2002 after
writing a book denouncing Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
he managed to escape Iran three years later. Mr. Fakhravar told the
subcommittee in July that Radio Farda and VOA "are presently giving more
assistance to the regime than to the dissident movement" in Iran by
touting fraudulent efforts to institute reforms within the Islamist
regime. Subsequent complaints from native Farsi speakers who monitor U.S.
broadcasts to Iran and a report commissioned by the State Department and
National Security Council mirrored Mr. Fakhravar's testimony.  The federal
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) disputes the criticisms and
periodically provides examples of broadcasts it describes as balanced. But
according to Mr. Coburn, the board has not conducted a systematic review
of all content broadcast into Iran and is limited in its ability to
oversee broadcasting content because there are no English-language
transcripts of U.S. international broadcasting. Along with his letter to
the president, Mr. Coburn attached several transcripts of VOA's
Farsi-language coverage of the State of the Union address. One of the two
guests provided by VOA, Dr. Mansour Farhang, "uses a Farsi term best
described as 'baseless statement' to describe your State of the Union
speech," Mr. Coburn wrote. "Dr. Farhang's hostility is further expressed
when he describes your Iraq policy as having 'no connection to reality.' "
Dr. Farhang then went on to blame the United States for increased violence
and instability in Iraq. The only other guest, who was supposed to balance
the criticism, said he agreed with this harsh assessment of U.S. policy.

    All of this is particularly tragic in view of the fact that the
Iranian government would appear to be quite vulnerable to the kinds of
pressures that U.S. radio broadcasts, properly done, could help generate.
Public-opinion polls taken in recent years suggest that an overwhelming
majority of Iranians admire the United States and/or want to bring down
the Islamist regime in Tehran, and despite a brutal secret-police,
visitors to the country frequently say they have little trouble finding
Iranians who want to be rid of clerical rule. Iran has been convulsed by
unrest and violence, particularly in the southeastern Baluchistan region,
where last month Sunni radicals killed 11 members of the elite
Revolutionary Guards in a bus bombing. On Feb. 19, one week after the
bombing, the regime televised the hanging of a man it said was responsible
for the attack. It would be a positive thing if BBG were offering Iranians
a real alternative -- something better than the likes of both Dr. Farhang
and public hangings.  But, that does not appear to be happening today. As
Mr. Coburn wrote in his letter to the president: "Our international
broadcasting needs serious management and accountability reforms. Given
the international challenges and threats to our national security, I
believe it is vital that this important public diplomacy does not
undermine your role as our lead diplomat. The status quo should not

     And if BBG thinks it is getting a bum rap from Mr. Coburn, it would
do well to conduct its own comprehensive study of its Farsi-language
broadcasts and set the record straight.


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