Iran's hard-line publicity machine is waging a war against President Hassan Rouhani. But unlike other moderates before him, Rouhani is fighting back.
Earlier this spring, a documentary that claimed to provide an exclusive glimpse into the "real" revolutionary past of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began circulating around the country. Produced by the mysterious Shafagh Multimedia Group, a company believed to have ties to Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), I Am Rouhani was distributed on free DVDs, screened at major universities, and broadcast in segments on state television. It promised to tell the story of "five decades of Dr. Rouhani’s political, social, and revolutionary activities."
It wasn’t exactly a Hollywood production. Composed of clumsily edited, low-budget footage, and set to a soundtrack that seemed better suited for a cheesy horror film, the movie attempted to make the case that the smiling Rouhani was, in fact, a hard-liner at heart. It claimed that he was involved in imposing mandatory veiling for women after the 1979 revolution, and that he had ordered a violent crackdown against students in 1999, while also engaging in traitorous secret talks with the United States during the Reagan era. It was a hack job — one intended to show Rouhani as a craven old apparatchik and destroy his image as a moderate among the millions of Iranians who voted for him.
Within weeks of its release, the president’s friends and allies stepped in, canceling screenings and criticizing the film in public. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani denounced it as "a big lie." With screenings quickly suspended, I Am Rouhani never reached the wide audience its producers may have hoped it would. But the film’s backers may have achieved their purpose: Rouhani was shaken enough that he addressed the film’s creators directly in a televised speech on April 29, just days after its release.
"Everybody has the right to criticize, but they are not allowed to spend people’s money to undermine an elected government," he said, hinting that those behind the film may have had access to government coffers. "I ask my critics to reveal their real identity."
In the highly polarized world of Iranian politics, state-run or state-affiliated media has long been a thorn in the side of moderate, reformist politicians. It pummeled former President Mohammad Khatami throughout his tenure, as he attempted to relax censorship and cut back on state intrusion into private lives, branding him a traitor to the revolution. In 2009, it slammed the protestors campaigning against what they called rigged presidential elections, portraying protest leaders as hooligans. And now, state media has trained its eye on Rouhani, the moderate president trying to resolve his country’s nuclear standoff with the West.
I Am Rouhani was just one salvo from the hard-line publicity machine that has set about besieging the Iranian president. A wide network of online news outlets and media producers — many affiliated with the IRGC — have attacked the president’s cultural and diplomatic initiatives for promoting immorality and endangering revolutionary values, as well as bargaining away Iran’s rights to uranium enrichment.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the government-funded state broadcaster and one of the country’s most powerful institutions, has waged a particularly dedicated anti-Rouhani campaign. One early slight came last September, when the broadcaster arranged its coverage of the president’s trip to the U.N. General Assembly for the same time as a major soccer match, ensuring that many Iranians would miss what the Rouhani administration hoped to bill as a signature diplomatic success. Then, in February, the head of the IRIB — Ezzatollah Zarghami, a former IRGC general sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations — attempted to block a live interview with Rouhani from hitting the airwaves. A short delay arose after Rouhani reportedly asked for the antagonistic interviewer IRIB had sent to be replaced, and Zarghami responded by suspending the interview for an hour, leading the president to tweet in complaint, "Zarghami prevented live discussion w/ people on #IRIB1."
The broadcaster’s flagship news program, 20:30, has also taken Rouhani to task in multiple segments for his decision to relax Iran’s stringent restrictions on independent magazines. One 20:30 reporter questioned the administration’s decision to give clearance to Iran-e Farda ("Tomorrow’s Iran"), asking whether "a publication that has been shut for 14 years for numerous violations and destructive actions" should be permitted to publish. The same reporter, in a segment earlier in May, also voiced his doubts about the decision to allow the publication of Zanan-e Emrouz ("Today’s Women"), a magazine that has become a symbol of Rouhani’s effort to resurrect civil society after the crackdown under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The segment described Shahla Sherkat, the publication’s prominent editor, as an individual with "perverse views," and asked whether "allowing her to have a publication [was] in line with the promotion of Islamic and national values."
The hard-liners’ control of the state broadcaster gives them a powerful megaphone with which to reach the Iranian public. In a survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, 96 percent of Iranians said that television was their most important source of information; of those respondents, 86 percent said that IRIB TV was the channel they watched most frequently. IRIB has spent vast resources in recent years producing a range of networks, both regional and national, to appeal to a wide segment of the electorate: Its elaborate historical dramas draw large audiences, and its news programming has the widest viewership of any Persian-language television network — even as it remains heavy-handed and often partisan.
An array of hundreds of hard-line news websites and daily newspapers also peck at Rouhani on a daily basis. In January, Kayhan — a newspaper run by the hard-line figure Hossein Shariatmadari, who has ties to the intelligence services — accused Rouhani in an editorial of deceiving the Iranian public over the course of the nuclear negotiations. The article compared the ongoing nuclear talks with the Battle of Siffin, a seventh-century Muslim civil war in which a deadlocked negotiation was only resolved by an all-out attack. Tasnim News, a site linked with the Basij paramilitary force, published an essay in April warning Rouhani that "this is a weak government that is on its way to becoming a fully isolated one." And in May, a raft of hard-line outlets dedicated two days of coverage to the "We Are Worried" conference, which brought together opponents of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiations — people like Fereydoon Abbasi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, who was quoted by the IRGC-affiliated Fars News as saying, "we shouldn’t be smiling at those who are weakening our nation’s interests."
Unlike former President Khatami, who simply ignored these relentless attacks when in office, Rouhani appears to be successfully fighting back. In an interview on IRIB shortly after taking office, the president accused the broadcaster of "giv[ing] voice to radical forces and opposition, broadcasting their news and damaging the reputation of the government in people’s eyes."
But Rouhani’s attempt to quiet the hard-line media has also apparently won the backing of a higher power. A flurry of accounts from Iranian officials and news media suggest that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself has stepped into the fray, ordering hard-line news outlets to stand down. Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said in a speech this month that Khamenei had grown dismayed with the media’s "spreading of lies" and had "issued a stern warning to the media responsible" — and, when that didn’t work, summoned the unnamed outlet’s leadership, asking, "Why are you trying to weaken this government?"
Ali Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative to the IRGC, also said last week that "news outlets and media affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards," are responsible for publishing "imprecise and reckless news." The comment added to the impression that the supreme leader himself may be working to shield Rouhani’s government from further aggravation, as it attempts to negotiate an accord with the West over Iran’s nuclear program.
Perhaps due to Khamenei’s support for Rouhani, the state media attacks today pale in comparison to the massive campaign against Khatami, who served from 1997 through 2005. In that era, IRIB and other media institutions ran what reformists called "the destruction room" — an organized command center from which they orchestrated a media campaign that questioned Khatami’s loyalty to Islam and painted his diplomatic efforts as a stealthy bid to restore relations with the United States. This time around, the hard-line press has been conspicuously muted on the presence of senior American officials at the nuclear negotiations, something that would have ordinarily been grounds for a tremendous fuss — an indication that Khamenei is likely exercising his influence.
But a July 20 deadline to reach an agreement looms. Should Rouhani and his negotiators fail — or should Khamenei either change his mind on backing a deal, or decide the government no longer needs protection — the president might once see the gloves really come off. If that happens, he may find that a low-budget documentary was the just the beginning.