Are Farsi-language broadcasts helping?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Mar 18 16:07:15 UTC 2007

Are Farsi-language broadcasts helping?

Saturday, 17 March 2007

The  Washington Times, 9 March - 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 continue."  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


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