Do You Believe Iran?

The inner world of the Islamic Republic's propaganda machine.

Selective credulity is the new normal these days, especially with the anarchy of social media – but "propaganda" is a lot more than just another pejorative for commentary one dislikes. Some countries still have old-fashioned propaganda machines… and one of them is Iran.

The regime in Tehran is 40 years old now and the revolution is more than a little stale, but the mullahs carefully noted how Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union kept their people in line. They use similar techniques, albeit with an Islamic slant – using the coercive power of the state in combination with the religious authority of its clerics. The combination is hard to withstand.

Yet, when Iran speaks, it speaks through a remarkable propaganda machine: the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG). 

MCIG ensures that newspapers – and journalists – must be licensed. Access to government events and press conferences is also filtered according to political/religious reliability.

Publishers must be licensed, which is a slow and lengthy process. Independent publishers are seldom granted one. Books must be pre-approved, and separate permission is needed to actually market and distribute them.

Lyrics and music must be reviewed and approved, and musicians need permission to give performances. Those that don’t comply risk arrest. Female performers face additional restrictions.

Since the Revolution, all radio and television services are controlled by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Ostensibly, the IRIB is independent of the regime – as independent as an entity can be whose CEO is handpicked by the Supreme Leader, and whose content must be legally consistent with Islamic criteria, as defined by the state. 

Besides the tight supervision of its leadership and content, most of the IRIB’s revenue stream comes from the Iranian government.

After the Revolution, the newly-established government aimed to Islamicize all forms of arts. In the field of cinema, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was its major theorist. Therefore, the government created films for the domestic Iranian market, and films that pasted a happy face over the grim visage of the regime for external markets. This "Potemkin" model of films from the so-called independent Iranian cinema had deceived many international audiences that should know better.

Iranians had a lively tradition of a free press… until the Revolution. Where over 100 newspapers were being published in 1979, nine remain, and 17 new government-sponsored ones. All are closely monitored and require government permission to operate. Many journalists have learned to their own sorrow that being too “liberal” or “conservative” within the regime’s constraints can mean a prison term when policy shifts.

Bookstore owners and librarians face the same risks. They must list their holdings with the MGIC and there have been penalties for keeping the wrong books off restricted access lists when policies change.

The Basij Militia periodically stage a big sweep for illegal satellite dishes – Iranians work hard to get around government restrictions. At least Iran’s equivalent to the Brownshirts or NKVD militia have had time to get fairly corrupt… one can usually buy a used satellite dish later.

The internet is a sore trial to the Iranian regime. The MGIC is bent on helping to protecting Iranians from the wild world of the web. It is joined by the Commission to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC), the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Meanwhile, the Iranian National Police has formed its own cyber police branch while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has also created its “Iranian Cyber Army.”

There is much more to Iran’s propaganda machinery than these organizations – the Mullahs lie, distort, and deceive to achieve their aims. Moreover, much of the population is heartily sick of their brutality, incompetence and corruption. Anything that hastens the end of the regime would be welcome.

John Thompson and Sara Akrami are authors of the newly-published book, Stale Revolution: The Ayatollahs’ Propaganda and Terrorism Machine.

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