A London Television Station Has Convinced Iran the Shah Was Great

Why are young Iranians demanding the return of the Pahlavi dynasty? Media-savvy exiles in Europe.

An effigy of Iran's pre-revolution leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
An effigy of Iran's pre-revolution leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

“We made a mistake by having a revolution!” “Reza Pahlavi!” During the week of protests that started on Dec. 28, 2017, ahead of the 39th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ousted the last Pahlavi monarch, small crowds across Iran could be heard shouting the name of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s son, the country’s deposed crown prince.

Reza Pahlavi, now 57 years old, has lived in the United States for his entire adult life; it strains credulity to imagine that he would be restored to the throne of a country he fled as a child. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Iran’s protesters were under the age of 30 — that is, they were demanding the return of a dynasty they had never lived under. While there is no reason to doubt the protesters’ sincerity, their political vision does require some explanation. Why are young Iranians now calling for the return of the Pahlavis’ rule?

The short answer is television — specifically, satellite stations run by Iranian exiles.

Most of the Iranians who initially fled Iran’s revolution were supporters of the shah, and many of them settled in Los Angeles. Starting in the early 1990s, some of these exiles began to beam channels to Iran. Initially, the Islamic Republic attempted in earnest to block these stations. Police and security forces conducted regular raids of people’s homes, searching for hidden satellite dishes on rooftops, in balconies, and in living rooms. But soon enough, starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, satellite dishes became inexpensive and small, making it easier for the non-elite to purchase them and for families to hide them in their homes. Eventually, the Islamic Republic had to concede that there were simply too many households with satellite dishes to effectively do any roundups. Some statistics in Iranian press claim upwards of 70 percent of the population watches satellite television.

As more and more Iranians began to own satellite dishes, the number of Persian-language television stations broadcast from abroad mushroomed. Today, there are dozens of 24-hour Persian-language television stations broadcast into Iran. Producers and financiers of these stations come from a variety of political backgrounds, but their common ground is the rejection of the Islamic Republic as a political entity. These satellite stations, coupled with the plethora of Iranian diaspora-run websites and radio stations, have made culture and media the primary political battleground in Iran.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly claimed that the West and Iranians in exile have waged a “soft war” against Iran, using media as the main tool of aggression. As such, he has tasked the Basij militia and regime media producers to fight back against this media incursion with new programming. Yet Iranian state media remains dry and audiences are more attracted to the stations broadcast from abroad. The director of one of Iran’s main regime cultural centers told me in 2014, “I want to bang my head against a brick wall watching state television. It’s boring. You switch from one channel to the next, and it’s a series of old clerics telling people how to live their lives. I don’t blame young people for not watching. I don’t even watch, and I’m a supporter of the regime and work to promote its culture.”

It has been more than two decades since satellite stations have been broadcasting into Iran, yet the stations began to change drastically in the past decade. Prior to 2009, most of the programming on these stations either featured news and news analysis from an older generation of political exiles, reruns of the same pre-revolutionary Iranian serials, or music videos of Iranian pop stars exiled in Los Angeles. Some of the stations attempted to promote nostalgia for Pahlavi Iran, but the content was boring, often coming in the style of a lecture.

Starting in 2009, with the advent of BBC Persian, the production value of Iranian satellite stations has transformed. Today, they routinely achieve the high production values of Europe and the United States. But most importantly, the content has improved dramatically: News and entertainment with a slant toward Pahlavi Iran that appeals to its intended audience is finally being delivered.

One station in particular has led this change and has garnered large audiences. Manoto started broadcasting on satellite from London in 2010. Its programming ranges from popular western serials such as Downton Abbey, which are professionally dubbed in Persian, to the breakout hit News Room, a clever 30-minute news program. In each episode of News Room, an anchor asks four other young journalists, sitting in cubicles with large touch-screen computers in front of them, to speak about a pressing news issue in Iran. Everyone calls one another by their first names, a practice unheard of on Iranian news media, where formality is the rule.

Manoto has quickly become the standard-bearer in Iranian households of what television should look like. And the fact that Manoto is not as overtly political as Voice of America or BBC Persian has helped it draw an audience, especially among young Iranians. But like its competitors, both foreign and domestic, the station does have an agenda.

This is especially evident in Manoto’s entertainment programming, which is made up of a range of programming including reality shows, game shows, and historical documentaries. It’s here that celebrations of aspects of pre-revolutionary Iran appear, increasingly so since 2010.

One show in particular, Time Tunnel, is important in understanding the recent turn to pro-monarchy sentiments. Hosted by a popular anchor from News Room, Time Tunnel uses archival films, documentaries, and photos to paint a picture of pre-revolutionary Iran. Time Tunnel nostalgically shows pre-revolutionary Iranian culture — it reminisces about a time when women could wear miniskirts and didn’t have to veil. It shows the vibrant music scene in Iran prior to the revolution, with nightclubs, alcohol, and dancing. In short, it shows the aspects of Iran that have been banned since the 1979 revolution, and that young people, in particular, pine for.

Crucially, Time Tunnel is uncritical — one walks away from the show with a sense of longing for an era in which everything in Iran seemed perfect, calm, and, above all, fun. There is no discussion on the show of the repressions of the era, or the rampant inequality. “If everything was so perfect,” one is left wondering, “why did the older generation have a revolution?”

Of course, it is not just Manoto that has contributed to this desire for Pahlavi Iran. Other channels such as BBC Persian and Voice of America have also contributed to this rose-colored nostalgia for the Pahlavi era. Voice of America airs programs similar to Time Tunnel, celebrating the popular culture of pre-1979 Iran. BBC Persian has hosted debates about the security apparatus and prisons during the Pahlavi era and in the Islamic Republic. This is a valid subject for debate, but one in which the participating experts have skewed political leanings that are not disclosed. Social media and messaging apps are also rampant with superficial celebrations of unveiled women during the Pahlavi era. Rarely discussed in these venues are any of the social or political repressions of the time.

Of course, none of this would have mattered if the Islamic Republic hadn’t blocked any alternative for political opposition within the country. With most of Iran’s critical voices and political leaders under arrest or in exile, and a long-running deadlock between conservatives and reformist political elites, young Iranians are hungry for a political alternative. The only alternative at hand happens to be a news and entertainment industry that pines for Pahlavi Iran.

Narges Bajoghli is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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