Al-Alam’s Game

Iran bets it can woo Arab hearts with its own gloss on the news

After confessing to the world on camera that she and her British crew had trespassed into Iranian waters this past March, sailor Faye Turney pressed a cigarette to her lips and took a long, deep drag. The way she immediately reached for the fix and inhaled its relief seemed to belie everything she had just been prompted to say by her Iranian interviewer, from her admission of guilt to how her captors were friendly, hospitable, thoughtful, and compassionate.

Five days had passed since the world had seen Turney and fourteen other U.K. sailors and marines who had disappeared into Iranian detention for allegedly violating their waters. During her “interview,” Turney was no longer in her sailor’s uniform, wearing instead a boxy white blazer, her hair covered by a black compulsory headscarf. While she and a commentator spoke, B-roll showed several shots: the British crew being transported on a vessel flying the Iranian flag, a letter from Turney to her parents, and the crew again eating dinner off white trays resting on their laps.

Until Iranian state-run TV broadcast these images, those around the globe envisioning what may have happened to the sailors and marines in Iranian captivity were at the mercy of their imaginations, influenced by Iran’s human rights record, by what pundits were warning, and by the potential consequences of internationally reported American and British mistreatment of Muslim prisoners.

The diplomatic standoff continued for another seven days, interspersed with more videos released from Iran showing more confessions from other crewmembers of the HMS Cornwall. Then suddenly, much to the surprise of British officials working to secure their sailors’ release, the affair ended. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pardoned the crew, calling it a gift to the British people in advance of Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday—all of this again broadcast live and on state-run TV.

Upon their return, the British service members disclosed at a press conference that indeed, those images had all been staged, that, in fact, they had been blindfolded, isolated in cold stone cells, tricked into fearing they would be imminently executed, and coerced into saying they had entered Iranian waters. Iran responded to these allegations with yet more video that showed that during their time in Iran, the crew lounged in tracksuits, watched soccer matches on television, and laughed and smiled often.

To many in the West, the Iranian spin and propaganda were hardly sophisticated and seemed wasted efforts, given that they would easily be contradicted once the soldiers could speak freely. But the West was missing the point; it was hardly the exclusive target of the Iranian government’s showboating. What Iran had just executed was the latest in an ambitious and savvy media project, in motion since early 2003, to use the TV news format to gain popularity and power regionally in the Middle East.

Easily lost in the fray was the fact that all the HMS Cornwall videos were first shown on the Al-Alam network, an Arabic-language satellite and terrestrial channel broadcast from Iran but only to locations outside of Iran. (Though Iran is in a predominantly Arab neighborhood and is also predominantly Muslim like most in that neighborhood, Iran is not an Arab country and the language spoken there is Farsi, not Arabic.) Thus the breaking news was first delivered not to Iranian viewers—who were keenly awaiting any indication their government might drag them into a military conflict with England—but to Arabic-speaking consumers on Iran’s own state-controlled Arabic news channel. Had Iran first shown those images on Farsi-language TV, Arab viewers, like others around the world, would have likely seen them rebroadcast later on their channels of choice, where Iranian spin would have been much more filtered.

While Iran’s capture of the U.K. personnel, as well as its pursuit of a nuclear program, and its recent arrests of American academics, prove that Iran is capable of exercising traditional military/police power to strengthen its position globally and in the region, Iran is also flexing its toned (if not robust) muscles of soft power by waging a concurrent campaign on the airwaves in the neighboring Arab world. Al-Alam is its principal tool in this endeavor.

The channel has a clear mission: help Iran emerge as the region’s top power. In doing so, observers say Iran is also seeking to diminish the influence of its rivals in the region, namely Al Qaeda, the U.S., and most importantly, Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina. To achieve these goals with as little resistance as possible, Iran is using Al-Alam to take its case to the Arab people, capitalizing on the rift between Arab citizens and their governments, exploiting Arab anger towards the foreign policies of the U.S. and its allies, and playing up their common faith, Islam.

Though such pickings may seem easy, in doing so, Al-Alam is gambling that God will be enough for Arabs to embrace Iran as the region’s powerbroker, even though culture, tradition, language, demography, and history separate them, and has for centuries.

In March of 2003, Iraqis began to pick up on their televisions a new polished Arabic-language channel. Unlike many of their neighbors in other Arab countries, Iraqis were forbidden to have satellite dishes and therefore had little access to the myriad channels serving the Arab world with programming that included Western movies, saucy Arab music videos, sophisticated news outlets like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, and Arab versions of American and French reality shows.

Though the channel, Al-Alam (“The World”), was presented in flawless Arabic, the anchors and newscasters were Iranians. The channel, Iraqis soon learned, was coming from Iran itself. While the studios were in Teheran, it was using a relay station on a hill on the border to reach Iraqi television sets.

Saddam Hussein had exercised severe message control in Iraq for years and had little love for neighbor Iran, with whom Iraq had fought a war from 1980-1988 (backed by the U.S.) that caused more than a million war-related deaths on both sides. Not surprisingly then, Iran had little influence over how it was represented to Iraqis.

But by March 2003, the U.S. began to mobilize to invade Iraq, this time for the purpose of collapsing the regime. With Saddam Hussein’s imminent fall from power and the retreat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s primary security threats on either of its borders would be eliminated by the US. Iran’s leaders saw an opportunity to pursue its ambitions to become a weighty regional power. What it still needed was a government friendly to Iran in Iraq and the U.S. out of Iraq, and therefore off its border.

Thus, Iran seized the opportunity afforded by the information vacuum in Iraq to communicate directly with Iraqis, to change its image with Iraqis themselves.

In February of 2003, Al-Alam began broadcasting from Iran terrestrially into Iraq. The channel’s initial editorial position was clear: it showed extensive footage of dead Iraqi civilians in residential areas, it described coalition troops as occupiers, and its slogan for its coverage was the “war of domination.” Al-Alam’s target audience was, at first, Iraq’s Shiites, the repressed majority who spiritually looked to Iran.

Al-Alam soon launched in 2004 a corresponding Web site,, in Arabic and then, in 2006, in English, where visitors can watch the channel as well as read articles from both Al-Alam and wire services. The English version of the Web site announces Al-Alam is “trying to disseminate news in a sincere and impartial manner by keeping up a moderate line.” The mission statement says the site is also “trying to avoid any prejudgments and premature or biased conclusions. The channel broadcasts news, views and analyses and leaves judgment to the audience.” The Arabic version, which is not a mirror translation of the English one, also says the channel gives visitors a “real picture of the world by giving facts and so the visitors can make judgment of events by giving facts.”

The network quickly grew into a satellite channel, with bureaus not only in Tehran, but now in Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo and correspondents in other countries. On satellite, it can be watched in Europe, North and Central America, Asia, and Australia. Once Al-Alam expanded outside Iran, it was able to more heavily recruit from the ranks of already trained Arab journalists. Here in the U.S., Al-Alam’s correspondents are Arab nationals who work for small European news services.

Similarly, as Al-Alam’s target audience has enlarged from Iraqi Shiites to Iraqis to Arabs, so has its programming to include news, interviews, and discussions focusing on other major Arab hotspots, such as Lebanon and Palestine, in addition to Iraq and Iran. As would be expected, there are still more programs focused on Shiite history, places of interest, or communities, especially in Lebanon and Iraq, and much more coverage of Iran—both political and non political stories—than there would be on other Arabic language channels. While Al-Alam tries to imitate the look of the well-respected Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya—adopting an Arabic-calligraphy logo and running news on a ticker below—it is nonetheless understood by viewers that Al-Alam is the voice of Iran.

“You can see very much that it’s a state run channel,” says an Arab media analyst for a Europe-based media-monitoring group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The content comes directly from the state; you can tell straight away it’s a mouthpiece for the Iranian government rather than a channel that is editorially independent.”

And what Iran is trying to say with Al-Alam also seems easily understood by Arab audiences.

First, the channel relentlessly portrays Iran—from its culture to its politics to its leaders to its advances in science and technology to its accomplishments in sport—in a positive light, whether it’s Iran developing nuclear technology or Iranian soccer stars dazzling on the pitch.

Second, it pushes Arabs to embrace a pan-Islamic identity over their national and ethnic identities, to get Arabs to see themselves first as Muslims, as opposed to Arabs, or Egyptians, Palestinians, and so forth. Al-Alam thus in its newscasts emphasizes the victimization of these people as Muslims as opposed to as Palestinians, Iraqis, or Lebanese or Sunni or Shiite for instance.

As the situation has changed in Iraq to one of sectarian conflicts, thus contradicting the idea of pan-Muslim solidarity in practice, Al-Alam does not emphasize the sect of the victims or perpetrators of violence. Indeed, the Web site in English and Arabic says that the channel is “trying to avoid stirring religious and ethnic strife.” Instead, the channel downplays the sectarian-based civil war in Iraq by blaming Al Qaeda for importing extremism into Iraq. And it blames the U.S.’s botched invasion for the presence of Al Qaeda.

Third, Al-Alam emphasizes Iran’s willingness to stand up against those who would, in its view, further victimize Muslims, as a way to portray itself as the true defender of Islam and as the leader of this pan-Islamic constituency. Hence, says the Arab media analyst, the footage of the sailors on Al-Alam was meant to tell Arabs, “Here we are, this is what we can do, something the lot of you can’t even dream of doing, bringing the U.K. to its knees.”

Just as Iranian leaders Khamenei and Ahmadinejad on camera wrap themselves in the kafiyah (the black and white checkered scarf, symbol of Palestinian solidarity, and of little significance in Iran), Al-Alam takes on the causes and aspirations of Arab nationalism, as if they are its own because Iran is majority Muslim as well.

The Web site echoes this in its English mission statement (curiously not in the Arabic one), saying that its objectives include “reviving mutual understanding, cooperation, and solidarity among Muslims on the basis of common cultural identity.”

But observers are quick to point out that Iran’s main interest is not religion. “Iran is not interested in uniting Muslims; it’s naïve to believe they are promoting Islam or Islamic culture,” says Nabil Dajani, communications professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB), “Iran is interested in propagating Iran’s position.”

Iran’s message of pan-Islamic solidarity is not being spread through the airwaves to the Arab world only. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (the IRIB), which controls Al-Alam and all Iranian channels, also has a well-financed array of TV and radio services in over thirty languages, targeting Muslims across Central Asia and the Caucasus as well. Some of the languages included are Turkish, Azeri, Dari, English, Hebrew, Kurdish, Uzbek, and Turkmen. In 2007 alone, Iran allocated $250 million for satellite transmissions.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei maintains control of the IRIB, monitoring its programs and appointing the managers. Those managers have not been journalists. The former head (1994-2004) was Ali Larijani, who now heads the National Security Council and who during the sailor standoff most often stated Iran’s position on camera. He was replaced by his deputy, Ezzatollah Zarghami, who was a member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. According to Paul Hidalgo of the Iran Analytical Report, an NGO in Washington D.C., his appointment strengthens the hand of conservatives in Iran who are taking a hard-line approach to maintaining Iran as a theocracy.

The IRIB does have an office in the U.S., in New York City, where they are permitted to cover the United Nations. However, U.S. law prohibits IRIB journalists from traveling beyond a twenty-five mile radius, and they are only permitted to do stand-up on camera from the UN. IRIB’s bureau chief, Morteza Ghoroghi, told CJR from his modest office on the 30th floor of the Lincoln Building on East 42nd Street that there’s nothing sinister about the IRIB’s foreign language services. “It doesn’t mean that we want to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries,” Ghoroghi says. “We want to improve cooperation between people in the region.”

The way to do that, Ghoroghi elaborates, is to expose other Muslims to the Iranian view of Islam and how Iran has translated that view into a government free from American influence and into a stable multi-ethnic society that is able to pursue a nuclear program, as well as make other advances in science and medicine.

“Iran is a model of an Islamic country in the region, we only explain our view and they can choose.” The mass media, he says, is one obvious way of getting those views out, citing U.K. and U.S. external channels.

The U.S. itself, of course, has also realized the power of the airwaves in communicating with Arab audiences, launching Al-Hurra (The Free One) in 2004. And this year the governments of France, Germany, Russia, and Britain have launched or will launch their own Arabic language channels. But Iran, notes the Arab media analyst in Europe, “saw this coming before anyone else. They were very clever.”

The U.S. State Department, says David Foley (spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs) pays close attention to all the views broadcast out of the Middle East and sees Iran’s foray into foreign language satellite news as inevitable. “They see it as useful for their interests to be able to reach out and communicate to these audiences. It’s not surprising at all since we do and so do others. We all are looking for the ability to speak to important audiences.”

But for the moment, despite numerous invitations, State is not going on Al-Alam, though Foley says that’s not a policy, and the practice might change in the near future. For now, he says State declines those interview opportunities because of concerns Al-Alam will manipulate how they are used. In the meantime, the U.S. reportedly has plans to pursue a satellite TV channel in Farsi to communicate to Iranians directly.

IRIB’s Ghoroghi is not feeling threatened. He believes Iran’s way—Muslim solidarity—is a much better way than what the U.S. has brought to the region. When asked whether the sectarian violence Iraqis are committing against other Iraqis would suggest there is no one pan-Islamic solution that will work all over the Muslim world, he reiterates the Al-Alam position. He explains that in the chaos the U.S. has created, Al Qaeda has moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, and it is Al Qaeda that spreads sectarian extremism. When asked about the Shiite militias and violence committed against Sunni Iraqis, he insists that were it not for Al Qaeda, Iraqis wouldn’t be extreme. “If Al Qaeda is stopped, the Shiia won’t kill the other people,” he says.

He is quick to add that the U.S. isn’t serious about stopping Al Qaeda. If they were, he says, the U.S. would push ally Saudi Arabia to cut its financing of Al Qaeda and push its ally Pakistan to stop Al Qaeda from operating out of its country.

“Extremism,” he says solemnly, “is dangerous.”

While the three messages—Iran’s goodness, pan-Islamic identification, and Iran as Islam’s defender—are almost overtly pervasive, there is also another subtle sub-current in Al-Alam’s programming that seeks to acquaint viewers with the Shiite sect of Islam, its history, theology, accomplishments, and glories. (Most Arab Muslims are Sunni.) Thus Iran, through Al-Alam, is simultaneously claiming a place of honor for the sect while preaching the irrelevance of sects. Though the potential contradiction could weaken Al-Alam’s coherence, Iran needs to communicate both messages to reconcile Iran’s Shiite identity to its majority Sunni viewers. “Iran considers itself a regional power, and by all right it should be,” says Bill Berkeley, author of a forthcoming book on the Iranian hostage crisis, “but because it’s Shiite, it’s held in contempt.”

Under different circumstances, simultaneously propagating these contradicting messages would be a juggling act of rattled cobras, and Al-Alam ordinarily would have to contend with the reality that Iran is separated from the Arab world (already not monolithic and not united) by language, theology, culture, and history—and has been for centuries.

But Iran is betting that these differences can be overlooked by appealing to the uniting effect of anti-Americanism, fueled by the US’s own policies in the region. And so far, it seems they’ve gambled well.

“America no longer represents its ideas anymore. You tell U.S. about democracy human rights, where are they in Guantanamo, Abu Ghreib,” explains AUB professor Nabil Dajani. “It opens the doors for Iranians to easily get in. So the success of Al-Alam is not because they are smart, but because they have such stupid enemies. The Americans,” says Dajani dejectedly, “are giving them this opportunity on a golden platter.”

Though the competition for Arabic speaking audience’s hearts and minds has meant viewers have increasing choices, which across the board by those interviewed is seen as a good thing, Al-Alam (or Al-Hurra for that matter) has not proven to be a ratings giant. In a poll done by the Arab Advisors Group in 2006 in Morocco, only two out of 700 respondents said they watched Al-Alam. 131 said they had never heard of it. Out of the 198 who had an opinion on the channel, 49 percent said it was “somewhat trustworthy” while 31.8 percent said it was not. Anecdotally, those interviewed said the channel is not capturing a large market share, and is regarded with the same suspicion as other state-run channels in the region.

Once satellites were allowed into Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya quickly dominated the ratings, as they do in other Arab countries, say their executives. Neither of the Arabic mega-channels seems threatened by Iran’s foray into the Arabic news business.

The number two at Al-Jazeera, deputy chief editor Ayman Gaballah shrugs it off. “It’s normal, everyone now is launching an Arabic news channel.” While he didn’t want to comment specifically on Al-Alam, Gaballah stressed in general that with Arab audiences, the “prescription” is credibility. “Whatever you do or whatever you try to convince them of, or manipulate them, they will discover later on and they will judge you and know and decide which category to put you. Don’t be a mouthpiece of any government, trend, political party, commercial group. With time they will know if you are credible or not, and according to this, the effectiveness of channel will be categorized.” Executive Editor of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel boldly asserts, “We don’t consider Al-Alam competition,” and when asked if the Arab world needed a state-run Iranian channel, he responds, “I doubt anyone needs it.” Khatib says the quality of journalism on Al-Alam is poor. “They can’t compete with someone who gives an editor a free hand. Whenever a channel needs to go to hierarchy of bureaucrats and censors to get any piece of news, it can’t do good journalism.”

Despite Bush administration plans for launching a Farsi-language TV channel, neither Arabic network is thinking of starting its own Farsi-language channel to broadcast into Iran. Gaballah of Al-Jazeera laughs at the proposition “at least not for now.” Khatib of Al-Arabiya says his parent company, the Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC), wouldn’t do it unless it were proven profitable. For now, MBC has two channels available to Iranians that have done well, but neither are news based; the first features Western movies and the second targets female audiences, including rebroadcasts of American network programming and shows like Dr. Phil and Oprah.

IRIB UN Chief Morteza laughs at the idea of an Arab-run Farsi language news channel. When asked if maybe some Iranians would watch it, he responds, “No, absolutely not. They don’t believe propaganda.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.