After surviving U.S. economic sanctions, eight years of war with Iraq and international condemnation for its extremism, Iran’s Islamic regime is confronting a challenge potentially greater than all the others combined: the satellite dish.
After all, it pits the “mullahcracy” against “Oprah” and “L.A. Law.”
“This is one battle the regime has no hope of winning,” said a middle-aged woman addicted to mornings with “Oprah,” afternoons with “Santa Barbara” and evenings with “Baywatch.”
“You in America have better things to do. We don’t.”
An escalating war over Iran’s airwaves--a contest between strict versions of Islamic morality imposed by the mullahs, Iran’s ruling Islamic clergy, and the wizardry of modern technology--erupted two years ago when dishes first became available in Iran.
They quickly transformed Iranian habits, not to mention Iranian skylines, as clusters cropped up on high-rises and apartment blocks. Tehran alone is estimated to have more than 400,000 dishes.
The regime has fought back.
It added a third channel, dominated by sports. It poured millions into new programming. It produced a game show and promises a mullah-approved sitcom soon. It even launched its own version of morning television. “Good Morning Iran” joined the lineup late last year--with the same news-weather-feature format as its American equivalent.
The show has occasional--very occasional--light moments. It has run interviews with people on the street about their movie preferences, snippets of children’s programs and attempts at film artistry on wildlife and the latest gallery fare.
But a mullah lecturing on profiteering, an interview with a woman who memorized the Koran and a news item on bustling Caspian Sea port traffic are more typical of the program’s dead weight. As either entertainment or information, “Good Morning Iran” has a long way to go.
The battle is really about bigger things, however.
Sixteen years after the revolution that ousted the Pahlavi dynasty for its Westernizing and modernizing ways, Iranians hunger for contact with the outside world. And a satellite dish is one way to satisfy that urge.
“It’s changed my life,” said a businessman named Majid as he flicked his remote between CNN International and the BBC News. “I don’t feel so isolated. I know what’s going on elsewhere. I feel like I’m back in the world again.”
In many ways, that is exactly what the regime most fears.
In one of his last acts, the Shiite world’s ranking cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Araki, who died in November at the age of 100, issued an edict blasting satellite dishes for spreading the “family-devastating diseases of the West.”
Now the government has taken the first of several steps to outlaw satellite dishes.
A new law, which bans the import, manufacture, distribution or use of satellite dish antennas, has cleared Iran’s Parliament. It is scheduled to go into effect next month, and the regime has already threatened helicopter patrols to track down dishes throughout Iran.
“The government has to defend Islamic and cultural values, just as it has to defend the borders,” argued Lotfollah Zarei Qanavati, a member of Parliament, during the floor debate. “Spreading corruption, robbing youths of moral values, decadent clothes and sexual problems are all deviations bred by satellite television.”
The regime is particularly concerned about foreign television’s effect on youth.
After the 1979 revolution, the ruling clergy called on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation, and they complied. The population has since almost doubled.
That surge has resulted in half of Iran’s 62 million people being younger than 15; 70% are under 25.
Over the last year, the clergy has found itself trying to fend off the influences first of MTV and then VTV, a Hong Kong knockoff that replaced it on Iran’s airwaves.
The effect is widely visible. Among middle-class families, teen-agers are increasingly sporting the haircuts and dress of rappers, rockers and punkers. The “techno-music” of VTV is the rage.
Majid, the businessman, expressed horror about programs the rest of his family watches, courtesy of two dishes that bring in 25 channels on Arabsat and Asiasat.
“My wife loves those ridiculous soaps and talk shows. And my kids spend hours every night watching VTV and programs full of violence--'Cops’ and action films,” he lamented.
Among other favorites in Tehran are “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Dynasty.” But to the dismay of many Tehran women, Donahue was recently pulled.
The mullahs’ concern may be justified.
Foreign television arguably has the potential of even greater impact in the Islamic republic than in the countries where the shows originate, mainly because there is so little other entertainment.
To be young and in love in Tehran, for example, can be a challenge. Dating in public is virtually forbidden. Mixed parties by young singles are banned. Women generally are not supposed either to touch or be out with men to whom they are not related.
Courting is limited to late-afternoon teas in the presence of an older relative in hotel lobbies and stolen weekend walks in the snow-capped Elborz Mountains or Tehran’s public parks.
And expanding Iranian television is unlikely to help.
In a tongue-in-cheek piece in November in the English-language newspaper Iran News, a columnist reported a survey “reaction” to “news” that three new channels would soon double the offerings of Iran TV.
“Upon hearing this, I managed to interview some 80% of the Iranian people,” he wrote. “They all said: ‘If all the six channels were to be reduced to one, and in that one channel they stopped showing most of the things they showed, we would be most grateful!’ ”
The regime’s fear of foreign media is not unique to Iran.
Saudi Arabia, which is far more insular than Iran, has also outlawed satellite dishes. But its small population and wealth give it more of a chance of controlling the media inflow. In contrast, China, with the world’s largest population, had virtually no success when it banned satellite dishes in 1993.
The Islamic republic probably also hasn’t a prayer of keeping out foreign programming--as some lawmakers argued in repeated and heated parliamentary debates.
The problem is not just the complexity and expense of finding and dismantling existing dishes or preventing future imports. Technology, they stressed, will always be at least one step ahead.
Even as the law was being debated, Majid and his family moved their dishes into the courtyard and covered them with a gauzy white cloth that would make them undetectable by helicopter.
Other owners began ordering new, smaller dishes that are less than three feet wide and adaptable for use through windows.
The world’s only modern theocracy once had the same argument about videocassettes, which were outlawed for years.
Since the regime could not realistically control video imports, several members of Parliament favored lifting the ban and trying to preempt “corrupting” videos with local production.
In the end, a compromise allowed import of video equipment, local productions and controlled distribution of approved foreign videos. But banned movies still make their way into Iran--often faster than they reach American or European movie theaters.
Pirated copies of big sellers--from “Silence of the Lambs” to the “Terminator” series--have arrived within a week or two of theatrical release often complete with the laughter or applause of audiences in theaters where the movies were illegally taped.
In the short term, the ban on satellite dishes has the potential to be different.
Iran’s fourth Parliament, elected in 1992, has turned out to be the most militant on Islamic mores. The ’92 election eliminated many hard-liners active in anti-Western activities and in exporting the Islamic revolution, including key figures involved in the 1979 seizure of 52 American hostages and in the drama that ensued.
The radicals were replaced by social conservatives--the country’s equivalent of the Religious Right--who have generally been tougher on issues of public morality.
In the end, however, technology is likely to win out.
Ibrahim Yazdi, Iran’s first revolutionary foreign minister, who resigned during the U.S. hostage episode, reflected: “Nobody can close the sky.”