The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Accurately)

Iran's state television channel barely showed any of former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's Friday prayers. In doing so, it only aired the state's crisis of legitimacy.

Ali Rafiei/AFP/Getty Images
Ali Rafiei/AFP/Getty Images

Every week since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the country’s public television has broadcast the Friday prayers at the University of Tehran, at which powerful clerics outline the state’s position and criticize its enemies.

Not last Friday. As former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was leading prayers, televisions were showing old footage of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad selecting his cabinet.

The event was truly historic. Rafsanjani — a powerful conservative and supporter of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi — spoke to a crowd estimated at 2 million. He called for internal peace and an end to protests. But he also used the pulpit to make a political argument, as tear gas from nearby streets caused those assembled to rub their eyes. He said the Islamic Republic of Iran needed saving from factionalism. He warned that the cavalier detention of citizens gave "foreign powers" an excuse to criticize the state. He emphasized the loss of public trust in the government due to the month-long crackdown in the wake of the contested presidential election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. He criticized Ahmadinejad’s manipulation and harassment of the press.

Throughout the weekend, the state channel showed only anodyne snippets of Rafsanjani’s prayers and comments. This decision demonstrates the domestic public-relations campaign that Ahmadinejad and his loyalists have undertaken to discredit the opposition and attempt to quell dissent. And it shows that Iran’s crisis of legitimacy has reached its apotheosis.

Since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Friday sermon on June 19, state television has given one-sided reports on the unrest, showing footage of protesters and announcing disturbances in Tehran, though never giving the full picture. It has described any dissenters as instruments of foreign powers, beholden to the "Satanic forces" of Britain, Israel, and the United States. Foreign journalists are commonly described as agents trying to overthrow the regime, and students as beguiled by royalists — despite the broad demographic base of those taking to the streets. One report, for instance, pinned a violent protest on armed students. (It did not explain why bullets allegedly shot by the students were the same as those of the Basij, a state-backed militia.)

The Iranian state’s narrative of the crisis is an expression of xenophobia rather than a story of domestic conflict. Its central aim is to compete for public opinion with satellite television channels offering an alternative version of events. Iranian state TV more or less depicts the reality of protests and protesters every day, but offers a different explanation for them — one that absolves the regime of any responsibility for the unrest.

State television also allows the administration to use "scare-straight" tactics, fitting with its narrative. Since the 1980s, the hard-liners have arrested their opponents, tortured them in prison, and then broadcast their "confessions" (generally, the opposition figures admit to being foreign traitors). Ayatollah Kazem Shariat-Madari was one of the first victims of this scheme — he was ordered into internal exile in Iran after he confessed to knowing about a 1982 coup attempt. (The same alleged scandal led to the execution of the head of the state broadcasting system, an appointee of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.) These "confessions" — once intermittent — now take up hours on public broadcasting every day, paving the way for the prosecution of opposition figures without a semblance of a fair trial.

Most worryingly, Iran’s broadcasting agency has started using the television channel for crowdsourcing. A program called Gerdab, sponsored by the Revolutionary Guards, shows the faces of Mousavi supporters and asks viewers to call in and identify them in order to "restore national security."

Such tactics are heavy-handed, but they are also unlikely to work for long.

In the past, the hard-liners have succeeded in blaming outsiders for internal dissent. Not so this time. Reformers in prisons and detention centers in Iran include top clerics, politicians, and public figures. These people are committed to the main tenants of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and charges that they are doing the bidding of foreigners are simply not seen as credible.

And now, Rafsanjani himself is a victim of the regime’s stifling of any dissent. One of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers, he is surely impossible to credibly portray as a puppet of foreign powers. The state simply looks illegitimate by refusing to broadcast his prayers, laying bare the deep-rooted crisis the Iranian authorities are facing today.

Just don’t expect to see that story on Iranian TV.

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